Unfortunate

Fortune magazine has allegedly rejected a cover illustration that Chris Ware provided. Check it out…seems it might strike a little too close to home for the pro-finance cheerleaders at Fortune. Our favorite part of the drawing? The chopper dropping cash on the 500 edifice? The Chinese off-loading dollars? Or that tea pot aboil, surrounded by bulbous, flag-waving figures? It’s hard to see all the details, even in the enlargement. Surely some capitalist will see a profitable poster opportunity here. That is, if the Fortune attorneys will allow it.–Cabbage Rabbit

Head Trip

In Daniel Johnston’s art, it’s all about the head. Big heads, hollowed-out heads, tiny heads, duck and cat and mouse heads, severed heads, devil heads, heads with one eye and heads with many eyes waving on tentacles. No matter how many characters and twisted setting pieces fill one of his works, its focus is noggins.

Johnston–singer-songwriter and artist– has been called a cult hero ever since Kurt Cobain wore one of his t-shirts to the 1992 MTV Music Awards. Only the hero part is true.  Johnston is now larger than life, with a prize -winning documentary in his past and an iPhone game in the present. His music has been covered by a host of indie stars and heard in the soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are, his art shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and he survived a plane crash that he himself caused. Rizzoli has published a big, colorful collection of his more recent colored marker work with some notebook drawings (on lined paper) thrown in for good measure. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s arrived–Johnston’s still under the radar for most–but he does keep going and going.

As the 2005 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston makes (somewhat) clear, the source of Johnston’s art are as varied as the seasons. He’s more than a simple eclectic and not simply an innocent although innocence gives his work a certain attraction. Johnston’s story suggests the relationship of madness to creativity, explores nature and nurture questions and, in a sort of holy backlash, highlights the perversions of evangelical thinking towards purity and punishment. Despite his psychological difficulties, Johnston has a unique type of ambition. A broken heart is central to his art.

As one of the curators of the 2006 Whitney show, Philippe Vergne suggests in the book’s lead essay, the acceptance of Johnston’s comic-inspired art work is a reaction to art’s current sterility. Vergne both condemns and champions the avant-garde in his essay, saying it has “drunk itself away…by over-indulging in its own industrialization, pampering itself to death…” and citing its “incredible and uncanny driving force…[a] prerequisite to oppose conventional wisdom, a capacity to alter its own status and institutions.” As more than one of Johnston’s characters says, “Who cares?”

Vergne does provide context for Johnston’s style by looking at the role of the cultural misfit and primitive in resisting and advancing the state of art. Johnston’s work is certainly primitive, with a child-like focus on monsters, heroes and battles. His drawings show little respect for traditional composition and perspective, yet they seem naturally composed. That winged horse riding its two wheels on the rim of a hollowed-out head with a dragonfly and a bare-chested woman hanging in stars nearby has an impact, not all of it symbolic, that extends from the head’s up-turned eyes. Because of those eyes you almost miss the fact that hollow-head is wearing a peace symbol necklace.

Looking for influence here is like looking for love. In a discussion with Johnston interspersed throughout the volume,  the artist claims admiration for Picasso, Dali and Jack Kirby. But what really moved him, he says, was a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. “It was the first girl I ever seen naked and I was like, ‘This is awesome.'” Nudity aside, I thought of the comic art of  Gary Panter. But the more one pursues the comparison, the less apt it seems.

In his essay, Harvey Pekar warns us not to make too much of Daniel’s mental illness, described as both “bipolar” and “manic depressive” by the non-professionals writing in this book (there’s also indication that, thanks to medication, he has it under control). Based on his own experience with mental health, Pekar tells us that “Daniel Johnston isn’t great because he has bipolar disorder. He’s great despite it.”  In something of a contradiction, he later states, “I wonder if part of what Daniel is doing is trying to purge himself of the terrible things going on in his head.”

It’s obvious that Johnston’s drawings, like his lyrics, are clues into his mind. His frequent use of text reveals the unresolved nature of his thinking. Two strange busts, tucked into the corner of one drawing have an exchange: “Truth hurts,” says one. “It’s funny tho,” says the other. “Peace On Destroyed Planets” is the heading over one ominously-colored, three-clawed (and one shoe) cyclops. Promise often comes as contradiction in Johnston’s work. “Hope for the Hopeless/ Life Is over” is the title of one in which a woman in a bathing suit pulls a dripping skull from a stump. Sometimes the text suggests Johnston’s dilemma: “Questions with no answers are stupid in the 1st place stump the intellect and jam the machine” states one  bulging, green head even as a thought bubble escapes saying “who cares”.

But not all is gloom and frustration. The same drawing has a smiling, topless woman with stars for nipples saying “Hoorway For None Nowhere.” Even a duck striding over a pile of skulls looks joyful as he cries “Kill em all!” And don’t forget the figure on Cobain’s t-shirt, Jerimiah the stem-eyed Frog, and his famous greeting, “Hi, How Are You.”  Johnston’s art brings new meaning to talking heads.–Cabbage Rabbit

Captain America Hates America

In a situation that is truly comic, political correctness has come to the kettle as well as the pot.  This piece posted on Yahoo News highlights the wringing of  Tea Bag hands over a demonstration illustrated in Marvel’s Captain America #602.  Although the illustration seems to ring true with what we witnessed over the summer, its association in the story with a fictional right-wing militia group that Captain America and The Falcon are investigating drew the ire of conservatives. In his post, Warner Todd Huston explains why they’re ticked: “There you have it America. Tea Party protesters just “hate the government,” they are racists, they are all white folks, they are angry, and they associate with secretive white supremacist groups that want to over throw the U.S. government.” Funny, but that’s exactly what many (and not all of them on the left)  feel motivates much of the Tea Party movement.

The term “political correctness” has been used almost exclusively by the right as a negative connotation to smear reaction to ethnic and other slurs. Their defense of such slurs is that they often have a ring of truth (see the current roar of the use of the word “retarded”) and that in the name of political correctness, the truth must be ignored less someone’s feeling be hurt. Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has apologized for linking the Tea Party to the fictional anti-government group in #602 and has promised later editions won’t use the sign. The whole brouhaha is another example of the right denying their actual motivation, as in the current Medicare debate. We doubt that the broadcast voices of the right will make charges of political correctness in this case.–Cabbage Rabbit

Here’s Keith Olberman’s interview of David Wiegel, reporter for the Washington Independent and comics fan who took the original photo of “Tea Bag the Liberal Dems Before They Tea Bag You” that resembles (okay is exactly, minus the word “Dems”) the sign that’s the flash point in #602: Countdown on Captain America and the Tea Baggers


TinTin’s Century

Did the past century belong to Tintin? That’s the suggestion in Pierre Assouline’s new biography Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin when Assouline, using redundant hedges, writes, “some speak with some justification of a ‘Tintin century,’ signfying the 20th.” Writer and Vanity Fair editor Bruce Handy, writing in The New York Times Book Review begs to differ. “I wouldn’t even give him a decade,” Handy says, lumping him into year-or-two sensations “like Zonker Harris and the Fantastic Four.”

Handy admits that his is a typical Ameri-centric opinion (Handy like Mickey and Batman for the century- owning comic characters). Tintin’s  popularity in the U.S. has, to this point, barely registered. Indeed, my local library has a solid collection of the cow-licked reporter’s adventures from his U.S. publisher Little, Brown which seem little touched by my fellow comic enthusiasts, young and old alike. This will change when director  Steven Spielberg’s movie The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is released in time for Christmas, 2011.  Until then, Tintin must be content with whatever controversy the biography and the American release of his adventures brings.  Little, Brown pulled Tintin In the Congo after news of the 1931 publication’s re-release brought protests of racism…shades of Babar! Herge had long since cleaned-up the adventure after its initial publication as well as having removed some of the anti-Semitic representations in his drawing from The Shooting Star and others.

All this doesn’t mean that Tintin isn’t the perfect cartoon character for the French century.  Like the French themselves, Tintin has dealt with the demise of the French colonial empire, such as it was, as well as showing as much resignation as resistance to its occupation. Herge apparently fell more on the resignation side. During World War II, he worked for the pro-German paper Le Soir and after the war was arrested, but not convicted, for being a collaborator.

It’s this ability to survive even while maintaining a false of dignity that marks Herge’s life (Handy notes that Herge “shrugged off accusations of anti- Semitism by saying ‘That was the style then'”). Some of this carries over to the character he created who, like Batman and the Fantastic Four, was trying to do the right thing among the tenor of his country and its times. The innocence of this,  not yet lost even after years of  cultural and social change, can still be admired despite its flaws. Herge’s genius lies in his story-telling, his panel construction and plot sequencing, his articulate drawing and wit, even as the stereotypes and racial arrogance are called out. —Cabbage Rabbit

Mad Man

There’s much to quibble over in Abram’s big, beautiful The Art of Harvey Kurtzman (the “man” in Kurtzman isn’t spelled out but drawn as  simplistic balloon-stick figure). Why include the complete “Superduperman” from Mad no. 4 (1953) instead of  samples from “Dragged Net!,” the parody of television’s cigarette-selling, L.A Cop promoting Dragnet or “Bat Boy and Rubin” that parodied the legal power of comic book publishers and the homoerotic relationship between the protagonists or show more of the incredible post-horrors-of-war Two-Fisted Tales or, or…

That’s the problem with writer, illustrator, editor and Mad magazine founder Kurtzman. His career was so long, varied and important; so influential to American humor at large, that it would be impossible to do it justice in any single volume. His early strip work for Timely Comics and Stan Lee, his sci-fi and war stories for Will Gaines’ EC, the founding of Mad and its turn from comic to magazine, the follow-up publications  Trump, Humbug and Help, the bread-and-butter work of “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy, his late work for the French alternative market; any overview can only touch work that all deserves long and serious consideration.

This over-sized book, selected and annotated by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, does an impressive job to highlight the obvious as well as illuminate less well-known aspects of the Kurtzman legacy.  Including everything from high-school woodcuts to his 1988 cover-design for the graphic novel Kings In Design this big volume would embarrass any coffee table with its crazed and crazy riches.

Not only did Kurtzman direct the course and tenor of  social satire, he employed and/or influenced many of its greatest artists and writers. Terry Gilliam came up at Kurtzman’s side where he was first introduced to John Cleese. Both Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb credit their success to Kurtzman. Even Gloria Steinem came up through Kurtzman’s rank ranks. Successful humor enterprises from National Lampoon to The Onion all wear their Harvey Kurtzman influences proudly. Kitchen and Buhle effectively quote a host of big names to find Kurtzman’s esteemed place in culture. On their own, they seem to have some trouble defining his importance. His work, they write,  not only gave us “critical insights that shaped our view of vernacular art and its uses, but it also helped shape the world as it came our of the war in the 1940s by giving us a very different future.”  A discussion of how Kurtzman shaped the future outside of the world of graphic arts and satire is lacking.

Kurtzman’s biography isn’t full of success. He was constantly  looking for ways to make money and remain true to his individual and artistic beliefs. It’s not surprising that anyone who challenges the status quo to the extremes that he did would find tough sailing in America. Kurtzman’s death in 1993 was given short shrift by the mainstream press and might have been entirely lost on the public if not for efforts by Spiegelman and Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. His reputation was always secure among those he influenced and those who enjoyed bits of his work, even if it was consumed under bed covers by flashlight. This book goes a long way to lift the entire body of his work.–Cabbage Rabbit

Crumb’s Creation

In the beginning, Robert Crumb’s work was all parody and cartoonish variation. Over the decades, he has breathed form into his illustration, bringing detail and something, at times, approaching realism while maintaining his characteristic style prickly-male legs and ponderous female thighs. The Book of Genesis Illustrated is his longest, most ambitious creation and, despite the subject matter, his most real, though realism is relative to his style (see “A Short History of America“). As the cover declares, it contains “ALL 50 CHAPTERS” and “NOTHING LEFT OUT!” Indeed, not only does Crumb include, as he declares in his introduction “every word of the original text” (derived from “several sources”, mostly Robert Alter’s 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses and the King James Version) but something of his own interpretation, no matter how innocent, via his drawing.

Something of Crumb’s approach to the project can be found in Todd Hignite’s interview from his 2006 publication In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists. At the time of the interview, Crumb had finished all of  four pages but much of his thinking on how he would approach it was complete. Commenting on an old 1946 EC comic Picture Stories From the Bible, with its blond Eve and red-headed Adam, he complains about its sloppy drawing and the fact that, “they just make shit up to gloss over and fill in whole passages. They have Eve  saying, ‘Mmm, this apple tastes really good.’ If I’m going to be doing this and don’t want some fucking Christian fanatics to kill me, I’ve got to say, ‘Look, it’s all there, I didn’t change a single word, I just illustrated it as it’s told.'”

No doubt, some fanatical Christians will want to kill him anyway simply because he does illustrate what’s told. We’re shown Onan spilling his seed on the ground when “he would come to bed with his brother’s wife” as well as the cruel consequence of the act. We see a drunken Lot having sex with his daughters, the older in missionary position, the younger girl-on-top. Crumb does not shy away from the murder, incest, adultery, lies and God-driven war that make the Old Testament the more human of the two scriptures. Nor does he exaggerate or parody the acts as he might have in the days of Zap. That’s Genesis‘ greatest accomplishment: bringing humanity and reality to the cruelties and taboos that are so often glossed over.

This may also be the text’s one weakness (though we Crumb fans will see it as a plus). In humanizing the events, Crumb draws in his own interpretation of his subjects’ reactions and feelings. Did Issac actually sit by dejectedly when Esau took Hittite wives? We can imagine that Noah’s reaction to hearing of the Lord’s plan to kill every living thing on earth is as bug-eyed as portrayed but would his eyes bulge again when there’s a hint of the end? There’s a touch of homo-eroticism when Jacob wrestles “until the break of dawn” with a nameless divine being. Would the handmaid look so sleepily satisfied after sex with the elderly Abram? Occasionally, character expression adds comedic touches as when Abraham takes all the males among his household to be circumcised. The looks on their faces shows they know what awaits!

Most interpretively expressive is God himself. The look of  satisfaction when He smells the aroma of Noah’s burnt offering of cattle and fowl after the flood is divinely human. But mostly He’s shown in various stages of anger (Crumb modeled the Lord after his father), allowing only his messengers to appear relaxed and serene.  Crumb’s is an angry God indeed.

One of the greatest achievements here are the dozens of thumb-sized portraits of all the begotten and begatters, the minor sons and daughters, all meticulously drawn. No Aryan looking Middle-Eastern ancients for Crumb! We can  see the different tribal characteristics as the sons of Abraham spread out to fill the known corners of the world. Where Crumb found all these faces can only be guessed. Scholars may take exception with Crumb’s models for the architecture and costumes of the time, many derived from Hollywood. But there’s no arguing against the fact that Crumb has made one of the world’s greatest archetypal and symbolic sagas, from Adam to Joseph, enjoyable in its humanly purest form.–Cabbage Rabbit

Best Comics of …

The best thing about The Best American Series’ The Best American Comics is that it reminds us of comics we enjoyed a couple years ago. Anyone who stays half-way current  with alternative comics and graphic novels will have seen a good portion of what’s in each edition of this four-year old series. Still, there’s always something missed as well as something new to discover.

The latest volume, edited by Big Baby and Black Hole artist Charles Burns, fits the bill. There’s well-known stuff from the Crumbs, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Jason Lutes, Tim Hensley and Art Spiegelman, stuff we enjoyed back in the day, as well as a less easily obtained piece from Chris Ware. The Rabbit had overlooked Kevin Huizenga‘s popular Ganges series. He found Huizenga’s “Pulverize”– an ironic story of the cruelties of  dot-com life and video games–to be the collection’s previously-unseen highlight. Then there’s always new material he absolutely missed (blame rabbit hole isolation) such as David Sandlin‘s demented, magenta dream-work “Slumburbia” pulled from the pages of Hot Wire.

Another service The Best American Comics series provides is to remind us of what’s become tiresome. This year, it’s parodies of classic comics, complete with comic-like advertising, no matter how crude or absurd. Tim Hensley’s brightly-colored, Archie-inspired teen serial “Gropius” (three installments spread through this volume) didn’t strike us as funny this time around. Michael Kupperman’s “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” is a clever-enough comic-tv series spoof, drawn in classic golden age style, that plays too far past its initial couple of pages. This stuff’s been done before and better by Ware, Spiegelman and others all the way back to Harvey Kurtzman.

In the past, the guest-editor’s introduction has often served up insight into craft and creation. Burns’ piece, disappointingly,  is standard bio fare. We learn that his father collected comics and that his parents succumbed when, as a child, he demanded all six volumes of the Tintin saga published in the U.S. by the Golden Press. We’d never realized that Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College was a comic breeding ground, but Burns, Matt Groening and previous series editor Lynda Barry were all there at the same time. The story of Burns’ association with Spiegelman shows that the mentor-student relationship is as rewarding to comic illustrators as it is to other artists.

We all knew that The Best American Comics, always published in time for the holiday gift  cycle, is best suited for the casual and non-comic reading public. But it serves a purpose–or two–for fans as well.–Cabbage Rabbit