Death of Comics Reboot

Take aways from the publicity surrounding the “reboot” of DC’s line of comics:

— Starting over as issue #1 means not being bound by previous story line.  So maybe Lois and Clark aren’t married. Now what? “Part of the nature of culture is that we retell stories that are meaningful to us, again and again, in different ways,” says Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, “pointing to Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Dante’s “Inferno” as ‘continual reboots of Greek mythology.’” Yeah, what would happen if Odysseus never made it home? Would Homer have increased sales? Myth making — even superhero myth — builds on shared narrative and collective understanding. This is one of the great attractions we felt towards Superman when we first started reading him centuries ago. We knew the story of his leaving Krypton and being found by Ma and Pa Kent, we knew the back story to his dog Krypto and the arrival of Supergirl,we carried a torch for Lana Lang (that red hair) and on and on. We lost interest as the stories pulled away from established myth and were long gone by the time Superman’s origins were rewritten in 1986. It’s more than continuity. It’s legend.

–“The success of superhero movies like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” did not entirely rub off on the comics that inspired them, with individual titles struggling to sell more than 100,000 copies at $2.99 or $3.99 a copy.”  Comics are not spin-offs, like action figures, but stand-alones.

–“Recent reports by ICv2, a research company that tracks pop-cultural products, said that in July dollar sales of periodical comics were down 4.27 percent from the same month last year, down 4.6 percent in June and down 6.3 percent for the second quarter over all. Sales of graphic novels at traditional bookstores were up…” That says something encouraging. The kids, whatever their ages, are alright.

–Envy. In Rolling Stone, Grant Morrison, who’s doing the reboot of Action, says “I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk  like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the  others, and it’s indefensible.” On the other hand, he says he stayed away from comics groupies.

–Morrison also says kids are abandoning comics  and turning  to movies. If that’s true, it’s a blow to our collective imagination.

–While this discussion in The New York Times‘ “Arts Beat” blog of the first reboot — Justice League #1 — does little to advance the craft of comics criticism, the comments that follow do.  Comment #2 quotes Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes saying Batman’s fans have “healthier egos” because Batman was a model of hard work and self-betterment. After all, unlike Superman, he was only human. That has changed, as has Batman, in these steroid sculpted times (no, I’m not accusing Bruce Wayne of following Barry Bonds). This commenter notes that heroes have both become more psychologically real and less human appearing.

Ironically enough, as the heroes have become (a trend one applauds) more human in complex psychology and in the details of their lives (marriages, social relationships, emotional depth), they have become way more cartoonish in the art, turning almost into abstract images, which lack of realism creates a real disconnect (for me anyway) between physical and emotional being.

I believe that those who favored Superman were imagining themselves inside of Jung’s theory of exceptionalism: children believing they were princes or possessing  super powers of  other forms of difference and not part of their own lives and families. Alien, like Superman.

–“Arts Beat” blog reviewer George Gene Gustines, without using the words “youth” or “demographic” feels the same way I felt when reading Justice League #1. Responding to reviewer Adam W. Kepler’s remark that, ” There’s nothing in this first issue that’s innovative, in either the story or the art,” Gustines says:

That feeling just confirms for me that I – as a long time reader of comic books – am not the target audience for this. This initiative is part of the quest for the fabled “new reader,” which, for the sake of the industry, I hope is found.

With 11 pages of ads for future issues of “The New 52!” as the reboot is called (and a Batman themed Converse shoe ad), not counting inside front and back covers, well, I doubted that the Caped Crusaders teaming with Green Lantern, coming so conveniently close to GL’s movie release, my readership was the point. The commenters discuss serialization and speculate who the audience for superheroe comics is, the suspicion being that DC is shooting for a “new,” “younger” demographic. Doing so may risk their current readership who, as commenter #1 speculates is in their mid-20s -to-mid-30s and which probably (my speculation) doesn’t end there. Sure enough, as I was reading the Times I column, here comes CNN with a “most requested” news item coverage showing buyers lining up for the Justice League release. No one there looked to be under 30…maybe the parents were keeping the kids at home.–Cabbage Rabbit


Sons and Brothers

Craig Thompson of Blankets fame asks a silly question in the introduction to Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper:  “Does Art Enhance Our Lives Or Distract From It?” Then he makes what might be an unpopular decision between fantasy and reality comics. (And shouldn’t that be, “Our Life”?)

“The Superhero,” he says, ” is escapist. The DREAM. Clearly a distraction. But [reality] is its own abstraction–distilling life to its most mundane, suppressing the dream with CYNICISM.” He goes onto say the Brazilian brothers Moon and Ba (twins!) travel both. Daytripper takes a magical realism approach, its hero is oh-so-human. It follows a “miracle child” and son of a famous writer through parallel universes of the same life, but not the same death.   Added twists: the son, Bras, aspires to be a great writer like his father but is employed scribbling obituaries for the local paper. He stands in shadow. Lovers and a friend, sometimes only their memories, tie the episodes together.

Ba’s artwork is much more round and human in his brother’s story, more sharp-edged and angular in his work for Matt Fraction’s Casanova Luxuria, which appears more commercial. Casanova comes down on the fantasy side, fantasies of several types, the best of which is probably not the legions of sexy, female robots. Sure, the sex in Daytripper is good, too. The best parts of Cassanova (there is a collected Volume 2 out; haven’t read it) are when the characters are at their most human.  Contrast that with Daytripper‘s  magical mystery tour of (multiple) existence, all of it all too human. Fantasy and reality–one can’t seem to exist without the other.–Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Investments

Jonathan Last has an interesting article in the Weekly Standard dated June 13 comparing the comic book crash of 1993 — what?! You didn’t know? — to the housing bubble. Yes, yes,  it’s the evil neo-neo-con and self-appointed Svengali William Kristol’s rag… but I think the story makes some interesting comparisons…criticisms below.

While speculation drove up the price of collectible comics, publishers strove to make every comic they released collectible. While you may not live inside a comic (or maybe you do, figuratively) its value, minus speculation, becomes personal. But let’s not forget the role of demand-and-supply or the roguish business practices of greedy middle-men.

Last, a comics collector as a kid, gives a good history of the run-up to the crash, plotting how comic rose from pulp to treasure in a half-century or so. By 1992, “At the investment level, high-value comics were appreciating at a fantastic rate. At the retail level, comic-book stores were popping up all across the country to meet a burgeoning demand. As a result, even comics of recent vintage saw giant price gains. A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.”

What brought comics down, he says,  was part speculation and – here’s where housing comparisons become murky –  distribution. The two largest comic distributors, not to be confused with the two largest comic publishers (DC and Marvel), strictly controlled who would sell comics off the shelf. As Last points out, they required financial reserves, large orders and high sales; until 1979. Then the two largest distributors, Diamond and Capital City, in an attempt to do away with their smaller competition, lowered the bar. (It’s worth noting that one of the best authorities on all things comics, Mile High Comics President Chuck Rozanski, believes that the comics speculation bubble of the 1990s is a myth.)

The cut-throat policy of these two distributors, Last says, “had the practical effect of turning many collectors into dealers. Comic book shops proliferated, growing from 800 in 1979 to 10,000 by 1993. Diamond and Capital City were so successful that they drove every other distributor in America out of business.”

Because wholesale comics purchases are made months in advance, and retailers are forced to swallow any stock they don’t sell, the suppliers were unaware that sales had fallen precipitously, even as they continued to add new retailers. The crash of these new, poorly capitalized and inexperienced comic stores came quickly. “The weakest of them folded first, and their demise began a cascade.  Publishers saw a rapid and dramatic decline in orders, so they moved to reduce costs by cutting back the number of titles they shipped. Which led to less product for the remaining retailers to sell. Which pushed the stores on the margins of survival out of business. The death spiral was on.”

Last says that nine out of ten comic stores closed during the crash and that publisher sales dropped by 70%. But the biggest burden fell on the collectors/speculators, many of them like Last himself, still kids. “As a 12-year-old I had a collection worth around $5,000, Last confesses. “By the time I was ready to sell my comic books to buy a car—such are the long-term financial plans of teenagers—they were worthless.”

Last’s comments on comics and the housing market regaining their value are worth reading. Certainly some high-end comics will never depreciate just as housing at the extreme upper end has lost less than your run-of-the-mill tract home. High-value art might make for a better comparison. And the story of what saved comics – movie rights and merchandise sales – has no obvious parallel in housing (apartment sales?). But both have value even though it’s worth remembering that comics, because of their size and easily porous paper, make for poor shelter. Comics weren’t always an unlikely investment for collectors. But their returns, like their tales, often prove imaginary.–Cabbage Rabbit

Krazy Love

Now here’s something: a collection of poetry inspired by a comic strip. Monica Youn’s Ignatz is surprisingly like George Herriman’s classic cartoon: suggestive, surreal, catty. It’s focus, despite its comic derivation, is the caginess of love,  it’s impact on psychology and our perceptions. There are two voices speaking here, Krazy Kat and Youn; and when in “Ignatz Pursuer”  it’s wished she could spit out her heart into her palm, we hear both.

If we’re to truly understand the Kat whose love prompts her (his?) beloved to fire bricks at her head, we must see the relationship, like Youn, as symbol, as a panoply of images and sounds.  In Krazy Kat’s world, love is both blind and a vision. Like the shifting scenes  in Herriman’s strip, Youn’s poems present us with ever-changing backgrounds holding unmoving characters. Krazy Kat’s love will never change. Ignatz mouse’s disgust with the same won’t either.

With doses of wit (“Weight/is the end//of wanting”), Youn makes Kat’s obsession serious, deep and unfathomable. She avoids Herriman’s phonetic spellings but not the phonetics: “O my dear devoir/O my dour devour”//Your name:/an arrow/with a rope attached/could pull/this raft/across this river.” The comic’s focus on unrequited love is made substantially dark, its humor dependent on the hope seen in hopelessness.

Yet somehow, hope persists. Each of the book’s four sections begins with an love poem (Krazy’s Song) in verse. “O Ignatz won’t you meet me/by the blue bean bush?” Each of the four sections ends with a  poem entitled “Death of Ignatz,” and it’s here that the weight of love squeezes perception. “The mesas/sink to their knees//and let the snickering dunes /crawl over them.”  Could the absence of an unloved mouse change the landscape like this?

Indeed, background is permutational. In “Landscape With Ignatz,” six views of the same place — “The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky… The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.” — all frame “your soft, your cerulean eye.” Youn’s ability to create and link images distinguish her poems. “The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stoked by/a razor,” she says in “Ersatz Ignatz.” The connection of time and regeneration in the desert setting is held in a man’s shaving. Sound and vision share symbol: “Chug chug say the piston-powered/ground squirrels.”  And always the hand of Ignatz and his creator:

The yuccas pulse softly under grow-light sconces.

Here is the door he will paint on the rock

Here is the glass floor of the cliff.

He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.

These poems are so smartly worded (“isinglass” is a collagen obtained from sturgeon bladders used to clarify wine), so true and smoothly constructed that it’s apparent Youn could make something meaningful out of any subject. That she chose Krazy Kat’s voice to represent her own gives her collection natural entry into a variety of comic and tragic themes: the foolish and obsessive qualities of love, the errors of action and the delicacy of perception.

Like heart-on-its-sleeve Krazy Kat, Youn also invites us to examine her heart, there, in her poems, in the palm of our hand.–Cabbage Rabbit

Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–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