fredag 30 november 2012

My t-shirts, part 55: Uncle Sam

The Uncle Sam two-part Vertigo series had gorgeous art by Alex Ross, but suffered from a major plotline weakness – I already know enough of U.S. history that I'm not exactly surprised, baffled or provoked by being told about some of the less savory things that nation has done over the years. So it was a kind of "Meh" book IMO.

But the art is still gorgeous.

tisdag 20 november 2012

The Art of Comics. A Philosophical Approach. Edited by Aaron Meskin and Roy T Cook

I've always been a bit suspicious when people from the so-called "high culture" sphere descend to the comics sphere to apply its tools and sensibilities on it. Basically, this distrust is based on a bunch of instances where I've seen people apply not so much tools and sensibilities as 1) prejudices and ignorance, and 2) political opinionating.

Now, I've got nothing against political opinionating per se; in fact, I've been known to engage in it myself from time to time, but when you let it take over what was supposed to be an essay or article about a particular comic, you sort of lose the purpose of writing about that comic, don't you? And, if you're arguing that Donald Duck comics are inherently imperialistic, or that The Phantom is inherently racist, you're just putting forth your own prejudices and ignorance, anyway.

The people – or, more precisely, the philosophers – behind the essays in The Art of Comics aren't prejudiced and ignorant, however. Instead, they seem genuinely interested in, and knowledgeable about, the subjects they address in 10 rather diverse essays. I disagree with them on a lot of things, but that's not because they're ignorant or stupid, it's just because I think they got some things wrong, and that could happen to anybody (even myself on occasion, I must confess).

I'll address my problems with some of the analyses in the book, but I'd of course encourage anyone to read the book themselves and form their own opinion. Here goes:

Chapter 1: Redefining Comics, by John Holbo

… argues that the definition of comics should include daily panels, like the Family Circus. His reasoning seems to be that comics evolved out of Punch-style cartoons, that it's to hard to exclude works like Michelangelo's roof to the Sixtine Chapel etc. with McCloud's definition, and that even one-panel cartoons are sequential; a sequence of one that implies several different moment within itself.

I can't agree with Holbo's reasoning. There is a clear difference between having to imply different moments within a panel and being able to choose to do so if you want to, because it furthers your narrative better than doing so in two or more panels. And we most certainly don't have to let the Family Circus into the comics family just because the Bayeux Tapestry doesn't look like ordinary comics, that's not a logical reason.

Chapter 2: The Ontology of Comics, by Aaron Meskin

… addresses the definition of comics from a different angle; that by defining them as multiple works of art, you can get past the problems of other definitions (like McCloud's) with excluding certain works of art from the category of comics. "[C]omics and graphic novels are typically multiple works of art rather than mere copies, and in virtue of this they allow for simultaneous but spatially-distinct and unconnected reception points. In other words, different people can experience them at the same time and in significantly different locations."

I think both Holbo and Meskin are needlessly complicates the issue of definitions. If they'd separate the form of comics from the published works, they'd probably be able to escape some of the problems with the definitions that they now have to jump through all sorts of rhetorical hoops to try to solve. Thus, the original pages that would be published in the legendary Action Comics issue were in the comics form, and the printed pages were also. And honestly, the Sixtine Chapel roof isn't really comics at all, and it's really not all that hard to exclude it even from a McCloud-ish definition. What we have to realize is that definitions – at least in the humanities – tend to get very fuzzy at the edges when you look at them closely enough. The solution to that isn't generally to add more complexity to the definition that creates new fuzzy areas while making it more unwieldy, but to apply a modicum of common sense when making a judgement of what to include and exclude at those fuzzy edges of the definition.

Chapter 3: Comics and Collective Authorship, by Christy Mag Uidhir

… looks at the problem of who should be counted as author in collectively created works with an editor, writer, penciller, inker, colorist, and a letterer. Uidhir's solution is to a) use the formula "authorship-of-a-work-as-'X'" rather than "authorship-of-a-work", b) try to decide whether the contribution a person makes is sufficiently substantive to him/her count as one of the authors.

I really don't think those conclusions warrant the formal logic that precedes them as Uidhir builds his case; they're a little bit too easy to reach by commonsense reasoning.

Chapter 4: Comics and Genre, by Catharine Abell

… tries to define what is genre in comics but gets a bit lost in all the categories and terminology, proposing that "genres are sets of conventions that have developed as means of adressing particular interpretative and/or evaluative problems, and have a history of co-instantation within a community, such that a work's belonging to some genre generates interpretative and evaluative expectations among the members of that community. To belong to some genre, a work must be produced in a community in which its constitutive conventions have a history of co-instantiation and must be produced in accordance with some subset of those conventions that is sufficient to distinguish the set of conventional at issue from all other sets of conventions that have developed as means of addressing interpretative and/or evaluative concerns and have a history of co-instantiation within the community in which the work was produced. A work is produced in accordance with a convention if and only if it both has features of the type picked out by the convention at issue and its maker gave the work those features so that the convention would apply to it."

Not only is that simply too convoluted, I really don't understand why a work couldn't be assigned to a genre based on its own qualities, regardless of what intentions the creator had when creating it. Basically, to me, Abell's chapter (like Uidhir's) addresses what is pretty much a non-problem.

Chapter 5: Wordy pictures: Theorizing the Relationship between Image and Text in Comics, by Thomas E. Wartenberg

… argues that the image is the most important part of the comic as it doesn't need words to be comics, and it's hard to disagree with that, but it's also hard to see it as an important breakthrough. He also doesn't want to exclude single-panels from the comics definition, but again the reasons for doing so seem a bit thin. Wartenberg points to how The Yellow Kid is generally held to be the first newspaper strip besides being a single panel comic, but that something "is held to be" something by some is a pretty poor argument for defining it that way.

Again, I think something would be gained from separating the definition of the comic form – basically a sequence of pictures (intentionally) creating a narrative – from the issue of whether some published work should count as a "comic" or not. For example, The Far Side is a cartoon that occasionally used the comics format (like with the cow walking up to the farmer's door, ringing the doorbell, and then returning to grazing before the bewildered farmer opened the door), whereas Peanuts is a comic strip that occasionally was comprised of a single panel. While the strip wasn't in a comics but a cartoon format in those instances, there's little doubt that Peanuts was a comic strip overall.

Chapter 6: What's So Funny? Comic Content in Depiction, by Patrick Maynard

… basically argues that humor strips signal their ephemeral content by being published on the comics page and by being drawn in a simple, cartoony style. 

Chapter 7: The Language of Comics, by Darren Hudson Hick

… treats panels as a basic unit in the not language but syntax of comics. I do think Hick, as a philosopher, is perhaps a bit too eager to try and understand comics as a language akin to natural languages, when it is in fact anything but, but he reaches the pretty reasonable conclusion that "although discussing comics as a natural language is perhaps a strech, it seems not unreasonable to talk of them as being language-like – as constituting a pseudo-language – operating in many ways like a natural language." Like I said, not unreasonable, but why treat comics as a "pseudo-languages" instead of just comics? Why not just analyze how comics actually achieve the effects they achieve?

Chapter 8: Making Comics into Film, by Henry John Pratt

… makes the somewhat silly argument that comics are especially good to adapt into movies because they unlike paintings are narrative, and unlike literature works with pictures, and are already cut into scenes just like films are.

(There are a couple of chapters more, but I didn't find them sufficiently interesting to take extensive notes on them.)

So, there you have it. Quite obviously, I have a lot of reservations about the analyses and conclusions put forth in this book, but I applaud the authors and editors for the effort, and would encourage anybody with a serious interest in the comics medium to read it and make up their own mind.

… But I do think you'll actually get way more insights about the comics medium by reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Seriously.

måndag 19 november 2012

I did this! This summer...

... while moving into a new house and trying to get myself and my comics, books etc. settled there... There have been periods of my life during which I've felt less stressed-out.

"You're a disgrace to the Army! I want to see superheroes!"
A tie-in with the Avengers movie (which was excellent, btw).

"Now, before we start, has everyone been to the bathroom?"

söndag 18 november 2012

Brant Parker & Johnny Hart: The Wizard of Id. Dailies and Sundays 1972

In my teens, I read quite a lot of collections of daily strips. There were these cheap pocketbook collections of B.C., The Wizard of Id, Peanuts, etc, that I used to buy when we went from my small town home of Ånge to visit relatives in a real city like Östersund, which had proper bookstores. I loved Peanuts, and the rest of them were usually OK, but not up to the same standards – but hey, they were comics, so I read 'em.

Occasionally, my love of comics would lead me into the realm of cultural discourse – the gorgeous artwork of someone like Neal Adams would inspire an interest in fine art in general, sometimes the prominent culturati of the time would discuss comics (unfortunately rarely with any particularly impressive amount of knowledge about the subject), or some left-oriented critic would put out an article or a book condemning the USA-produced trash that was supposedly indoctrinating innocent kids into a capitalistic, imperialistic and evil worldview.

I remember reading a particularly galling review of a collection of comics dailies, where the reviewer complained that it was tiresome to read the whole collection because it got repetitive and the strips probably weren't intended to be collected into a book like that. First of all: well, duh – they were intended to be published as daily strips in a newspaper; collecting them was a bonus for people who liked the strip. Second, I don't recall what strip it was, but if it was Peanuts, the reviewer must have been an idiot, because any chance to read Peanuts strips is a treat to be savored.

And finally, the reviewer was an idiot, because how bloody hard can it be to simply put the book away and do something else for a while, and then come back and pick it up to read some more when you feel like it? After all, you can probably manage to do so with novels of short story collections, so how hard can it be to do the same when the book contains comic strips instead? Good grief.

Anyway, what this rambling leads up to is my appreciation for today's quite excellent trend of collecting old strips in complete editions, and more precisely Titan Books' The Wizard of Id. Dailies and Sundays 1972.

The Wizard of Id wasn't exactly one of my favorites; partly because the art wasn't as clean or pretty as in some other strips, partly because the jokes just didn't seem quite as funny. A lot of them were about how fat, ugly and unpleasant the Wizard's wife was, and I'd already read plenty enough of that kind of jokes to be kind of tired of them.

Re-reading the strip today, I have to say that I agree with my younger self. Apart from the "ugly wife" strips, there are strips with puns, strips with "short" jokes about the diminutive king of Id, booze jokes about the alcoholic court jester Bung, and contemporary jokes about women's lib etc. Some of the jokes work, some don't, but generally, the strip never really takes off. Like B.C. and Peanuts, The Wizard of Id was considered a "sophisticated" strip in those days. The term referred to how that sort of strips worked with words and small effects instead of "bigfoot" cartooning (of which Beetle Bailey would be the foremost example), slapstick and wild, grandiose, physical humor, and for that purpose, I suppose I'll go along with it. But Parker et al – and most of the other strips in that tradition – while often clever in their puns, put-downs etc, never reached the level of sophistication that Charles Schulz managed to achieve, really creating Art by sublimating his neuroses, anxieties and aspirations into a cohesive, captivating whole.

Actually, I think this is a pretty decent joke, as jokes go. But this is as good as it gets.

Nevertheless, my hat's off to Titan Books for collecting this bit of comics history into a nice, appealing package, and I hope they continue to do so, even though I won't recommend it. I would, however, recommend them to remove the annoying "" sticker that is in Every-Bloody-Strip mucking them up graphically and distracting the reader from what's important: the actual strips. (If they could also get the copyright stickers out of the panels and into the gutters instead, and preferably also make it just a smidgeon smaller, that would also be appreciated.)

Oh, and it does get a bit tiresome to read long stretches of the strip, because it is kind of scratchy in its artwork and kind of repetitive in its humor. It probably wasn't intended to be read like this, strip after strip after strip in a whole book.

But you know what? That's not really a problem. You can read a month or so at a time, put the book away for a couple of hours or a day or two, and then return to read some more.

That is, if you're not too stupid to figure that out.

lördag 17 november 2012

Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera & Marcos Martin: Here Comes… Daredevil, Vol 1

I always liked Mark Waid. He's a solid comics writer well grounded in characters' history, and prepared to take a refreshing look at them from new angles, and to introduce some surprises in his stories. He's not quite in the Moore - Gaiman - Morrison league, but always enjoyable, so perhaps a notch below that top tier, pretty much like Peter David (IMO).

So I had high hopes for his Daredevil. And I wasn't really disappointed. This book starts off with Daredevil crashing a Mob wedding to stop a kidnapping by the dimension-jumping Spot. Paolo Rivera's art for this chapter is especially nice – and reminds me a bit of David Mazzucchelli, possibly because of how he depicts DD's body in motion (and possibly also from how he spots the shadows on it) dramatically but not overly flashy, making it look positively naturalistic by Marvel standards.

Waid then proceeds to give a solution how to move on from DD's secret identity having been outed previously – in this internet/paparazzi age, memes like that tend to lose power over time, so the notion that Matt Murdock is really Daredevil is now in the "some people are sure of it, others don't really know" category. Clever, if not earth-shattering, and opening up a nice venue of subplots and clever story details.

Since everybody now knows – or "knows" – that Matt Murdock is Daredevil, his legal career goes down the drain, because, well, somehow the prosecutor working the word "Daredevil" into every other sentence makes it impossible for Matt to win cases. I'm not really with Waid on how this works, actually, but I'll go along with it for the sake of the story. It's because Waid is a good writer that I'll, as a reader, choose to go along, but it's also a mark of how he's not top-notch (to me, at least) that I'll still have reservations. I've followed – for example – Grant Morrison along on far less logical story developments, but that's because with Grant Morrison, I'm usually just swept along with the inexorable flow of brilliant storytelling.

Anyway, Matt Murdock comes up with a new way of helping people, now that he can't be their lawyer: he'll teach them how to represent themselves, and coach them towards victory. This is, again, clever, and actually reminded me of the feeling I got when reading my very first DD story many, many years ago, with Stan Lee depicting a Matt Murdock able to come up with a clever way of helping his client, regardless of what conventional wisdom said.

So far, so good. What about the actual action? Well, DD faces two menaces in this collection. The first is a new take on a classic Marvel villain (again, in keeping with Waid tradition), the second a somewhat more prosaic criminal/superterrorist organization(s) threat against a – get this – blind kid. Of course Daredevil has to get involved. And they bring in the Bruiser, who's out to show he can take on all sorts of lower-lever superbeings in the Marvel Universe, crossing them of his (smartphone – another nice touch) list as he beats them, one after one. (DD is just above Spider-Woman on that list, something Bruiser regrets after handily beating DD in their first encounter.)

On the art: Paolo Rivera is the artist for the first half of the book, and as noted does an excellent job. Marcos Martin does the second half, and his figure and action drawing is excellent as well, but he needs to work on his faces – they're too cartoony, and not in an elegant cartoony style either, unfortunately. It's not terrible, but there's plenty of room for improvement.

Anyway, I'll give away a bit of the ending because it speaks to a larger point I've been making: the showdown with the conglomerate of criminal organizations is resolved with some clever lawyeristic wrangling by Daredevil – but I don't really buy it, because I can see the counter-argument to the point DD is (successfully) making to the crooks. Had it been Moore, Miller etc writing the story, I can well see how I'd be carried along by the strength of the narrative and/or the cleverness of how the argument is formulated, but that doesn't happen with Waid. He's merely in the "damned good" category of writers for me, not quite in the "superstars" one.

But you know what? "Damned good" is still damned good, and this book has plenty of clever and just plain good things going for it. This is excellent superhero fare. Heartily recommended.

(Second opinion: Comics Alliance has a good review of the book here, which among other things points to how Daredevil gives a little smile when he's about to throw himself into a fight against tough odds, giving emphasis to his "daredevil" moniker. Good catch, that.)

onsdag 14 november 2012

Vicki Scott & Paige Braddock: It's Tokyo, Charlie Brown

You know those old Peanuts movies and specials? Those that basically took a bunch of gags from the strip and strung them together to form part of the movie, and then had the plot sort of develop from there?

Well, that is pretty much what this is, albeit in comics format. Writer-penciller Vicki Scott starts off the book with some baseball gags from the strip, emphasizing Charlie Brown's lack of skill and his team's lack of success, and then throws in the kicker: the kids become selected as goodwill ambassadors in the president's "Young Ambassadors Program", and will travel to Japan to play baseball against another kids team.

That sets the stage for the gags and character interactions to follow. Marcie reads the guidebook to Japan, learning more about the country and teaching her friends a little about it in the process, Charlie Brown gets caught up in the moment and makes nice speeches to his friends about their responsibilities as goodwill ambassadors and nobody listens to him, and Woodstock gets mugged by the food in the Japanese restaurants they visit. Finally, the play baseball against a Japanese kids' team, and play at their usual level of competence (especially Charlie Brown), and Scott throws in a plot twist to keep it all from becoming an unhappy ending.

All in all, this really is an excellent Peanuts TV special. I won't compare it to Schulz' strip – really, how could you? – but it's a good, entertaining story with some nice touches and that is faithful to Schulz's characters. It's 100 pages, and I thought it was well worth my time reading them. Recommended.

måndag 12 november 2012

Back from the comics store, November 2012 edition

Mutts – I've always liked Mutts (well, I loved it for the first coupla years), the Hägar and Wizard of Id collections are classic daily strips, Mort Drucker is only like the best MAD artist ever, and Gray Morrow is also a classic artist.

I love Peanuts, and while the comic book isn't really Schulz quality (how could it be, honestly?), this was a good issue with some well done stories,  Buz Sawyer is a classic, and in 1945-46 not yet the somewhat dull Cold War strip it would become later, Neal Adams is the superhero artist even if he doesn't today have/use the smooth, elegant line of the 70s Neal Adams and I fully expect the writing to be... not the best possible, the Avengers book is written by Kurt Busiek whose work I've always liked (it was nice when the rest of the world caught up so he could get more work), and the Essentials and Showcase volumes are a good way of getting old comics that are in no way worth what it would cost to buy the original comic books.

Aaaand finally it's more Peanuts, Joe Kubert's lovely art in Sgt. Rock, I've always liked the Justice League – and the art of Alan Davis, and it's very nice to see classic EC work by legends Wallace Wood and Harvey Kurtzman in affordable format. I will enjoy reading this lot.