Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More on Journey Into Mohawk Country

Last Sunday’s New York Times carried a story about Charles T. Gehring, who for 35 years has been translating 17 century court records, letters and other documents from New Netherland (New York) from the original Dutch. Imagine my surprise to come across a reference to George O’Connor’s graphic novel, Journey Into Mohawk Country. (See my post on that book here.)

For his book, O’Connor used Gehring’s translations of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert’s journal, which detailed the barber-surgeon’s travels through Mohawk Valley in 1634.

The NYT story tells more about van den Bogaert’s life after the adventures of Journey Into Mohawk Country. He became commander of Fort Orange (in what is now Albany), but tried to escape into native American country after colonists learned he was gay. The Dutch colonists, apparently not particularly open-minded on this issue in those days, dragged him back. But he escaped again “when a sheet of floating ice damaged the fort,” the NYT reports, only to drown in the Hudson River.

Oh, and van den Bogaert likely was an ancestor of actor Humphrey Bogart. Here’s looking at you, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Criminally Good

Issue number three of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s “The Sinners” just came out, part of their Criminal series. If you’re old enough to see over the steering wheel of your old man’s car, you ought to go grab a copy, as one of the characters might say.

As with their six-part Incognito series (about a witness-protection program for super villains), Criminal (about, well, criminals) offers a perfect blend of narration and art: Brubaker’s hard-boiled Mickey Spillane-ish text — “Her sadness … her loneliness … they got to a place deep inside him. Much as he hated to admit it.” — and Phillips’s anguished, scarred and scared characters — faces half in shadows, tormented eyes averted — move the story along at dangerous speed. You’re almost afraid everyone’s going to crash and burn before the murder mystery is resolved.
Take a look at Criminal. Then dip back for Incognito, now available in a collected edition, or the earlier run of the Criminal series, also now collected in one book.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O, Nancy: An Anthology of Graphic Fiction

Oh, I get it now. After all this time, after reading how Robert Crumb claimed he had his daughter home-schooled in France with old Little Lulu comic books, and noting the frequent references by Bill Griffith and Patrick McDonnell to Nancy comic strips, I finally see what the attraction is, thanks to Ivan Brunetti’s book, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories.

I admit I never thought Nancy in particular was especially clever, even when I read them as a child. I mostly recall cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller’s drawings of “hippies” as wearing torn clothes and always possessing guitars with broken strings and lots of flies. He seemed to confuse free-spiritedness with sloth and dishonesty.

But in his anthology’s introduction, Brunetti uses a 1958 strip about Nancy dreaming she’s being boiled, steamed and baked to demonstrate “algebraically balanced composition,” rhythm and efficiency. The final panel shows the girl waking up in bed to discover she’s been buried under a mountain of winter coats and hats. Each garment is clearly distinguishable from the other, by checks, stripes or dots.

“… The graphic clarity of the pile of coats … in lesser hands could have been turned into a gray, undifferentiated mush. Clutter was never depicted so unclutteredly,” he writes.


The anthology itself has a lot about Charles Schultz and nothing about Will Eisner, and with samples from Crumb, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (but not Mario), Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Seth and Art Spiegelman, among the other usual suspects.

More later on this book.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Groovy Atomics

Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, once wrote that Michael Allred’s It Girl was “the cutest girl in the history of comics.” What about Allred’s art could render such an achievement?

For one thing, there’s the way her just-shoulder-length yellow hair frames her heart-shaped face. There’s her tight pink top with lots of exposed midriff. And there’s that gun belt, slanted across her hips, whose holsters carry not weapons but makeup — she uses the holsters as a purse.

Isn’t that perfect for a 21st century cute girl crime fighter?

It Girl is one of the Atomics, a team of beatniks — yes, that’s right — who were mutated, first with putrid-looking skin, then with super powers.

Beatniks who talk a lot and who spend a good deal of time getting lost in alternate dimensions and worrying about who has a chance with whom (“Luna!” “Oh, Adam!”). In their run of 15 comic books under their own name, they were involved in one actual attempt to stop a crime — against the bank-robbing Skunk (yes, that’s right) — and they really didn’t do so well.

But that’s not the point. The Atomics (released in large trade paperback format as Madman and the Atomics, Madman being the more commercially successful Allred character) may look reminiscent of Ant Man, Iron Man and Plastic Man, but they’re about running, jumping and having adventures, never mind any heavy-duty sci-fi plot details.

One cover line, designed a la Jack Kirby, one of Allred’s influences, reads: “One Will Die!! But Who? And For How Long?!” On another cover, Zapman (not absolutely sure why he’s called that) cries, “My mom ate my dad! How do you think I feel?”

It’s all about the flow, daddy-o.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

9 Chickweed Lane: I-Spy

Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane is an odd strip. As an illustrator, he has an excellent eye, especially for the feminine form. Too often, however, the strip is about cats or some old guy in bib overalls named Thorax, who believes he communes with the cosmos. It’s full of too much New Hampshire whimsy.

But every so often an uncharacteristic storyline gets a stranglehold on events, and something, well, truly interesting happens. An earlier storyline followed two characters in a music competition overseas and their own unfolding passionate love story, which to their mix of horror and delight got transmitted on YouTube. (In sibling Pigborn, the characters of Chickweed played out A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

The current Chickweed story is a flashback, in which the grandmother tells her daughter of her WWII days singing for the USO — until she was recruited by U.S. military intelligence to entertain German POWs, hold their hands and listen to their deepest secrets … including, G2 hopes, about troop strength, movement and the like.

“When I reached out and they held my hands, they seemed saddest, and so happy to talk,” Edna recalls.

But her deepest challenge came from non-Germans. “Somehow people knew I had been visiting a POW camp, and I could feel their hostility. I consorted with the enemy … and the enemy were killers as far as they were concerned.”

She also remembers the English anger with the Yanks, who arrived late, again, to the war. “So then I showed up, gliding into and out of POW camps to sing to Germans. I began to wonder whose ally I really was. And I couldn’t explain it to anybody.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Red Monkey, Part 2

Joe Daly’s The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book contains two stories — the first is “The Leaking Cello Case” and the second is “John Wesley Harding,” which is about twice as long. In this case, shorter is better.

While “John Wesley Harding,” concerning the search for the missing eponymous capybara in the South African wetlands, has its moments of fun and humor, and maintains Daly’s clear lines, it doesn’t have the pace of the first story.

But it does have a great punchline. Dave, talking about his girlfriend, says: “Well, I’ll definitely have to break up with her now … seeing that I disintegrated her father and all.”

That pretty much makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Red Monkey

Joe Daly’s The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book has humor such as this:

The protagonist, Dave, was born with the feet of a howler monkey. He can climb trees and apartment buildings with equal ease. And, as drawn by Daly, he has the face of a monkey, too.

The characters talk like this, as sponger best friend Paul describes the didgeridoo he just used to konk a bad guy who was trafficking in South American cane toads for their hallucinogenic mucus: “Used correctly, it can be a deadly weapon. It’s strange, man, usually I’m a pacifist. I must have stored up quite a lot of rage over the years. I mean, if you think about it, man, the word ‘pacifist’ has the word ‘fist’ in it. I mean, I don’t know what that means, or anything … yeah, it’s probably largely irrelevant … I don’t know.”

It’s silly, it’s absurd. It’s also kind of funny.

More later.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Captain Easy Returns

It seemed inevitable someone would get around to republishing Roy Crane’s Captain Easy strips from the 1930s, and Fantagraphics will begin doing so, over six volumes, come January.

In its winter catalog, Fantagraphics calls Captain Easy “arguably the comics page’s first and all-time greatest adventure strip.” We can debate the “greatest” part, but as for the “first,” Easy himself debuted in 1929 as a sidekick in the already popular Wash Tubbs. G. Washington Tubbs II, who started out in 1924, has a much better claim to being the “first.”

The five-foot-something Tubbs, drawn in a whimsical cartoon-like style, traveled the world, getting caught up with everything from European revolutions and Mexican bandits to medicine shows (“Yo ho! Yo ho! Gather ’round and see the marvelous feats of magic …!”) and murderous villains (“Whack! Bam!”). It was while he was in the kingdom of Kandelabra that Tubbs rescued Easy from imprisonment in its dungeons by handing him a crowbar.

“American, aren’t you?” Tubbs asks.

“Well, yes and no,” Easy replies, with a Southern-gentleman’s drawl. “Started out that way. Hang my hat on any old flagpole now. Like a flea, I reckon ….”

Easy, with his mysterious past, most likely was the “first” solider-of-fortune in what was to become a long line of foot-loose adventurers. But, as Ron Goulart points out in his The Adventurous Decade, Easy’s name at first was something else. As Crane told Goulart, the cartoonist had another moniker in mind, but then he forgot it when it came time to name his character. It wasn’t until later he recalled he wanted to call him Early. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Zippy on Vacation

Lots of illustrators carry around a sketch pad, even on vacation. Bill Griffith, creator of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, has for years, apparently, and by chance I happened to receive a copy of his “Get Me a Table Without Flies, Harry.” It’s a collection of his sketches of people caught unawares (often in ill-fitting swim suits), food (“Here today, gone tamale”) and places (such as Pepto-Bismoloya Beach), while in locales from Paris, Dublin, Naples, Amsterdam and Puerto Vallarta to less exotic spots that include Salinas, Dallas and Lake Tahoe.

Knowing the wonderfully cranky Zippy state of mind helps with the inside jokes — a youngster paddling in a Calistoga, California, pool yelling “Yow!!” is deemed “a kid after my own heart.” And polka dots — the primary design on Zippy’s muu-muu — always draw praise.

But really, no insider knowledge is necessary to enjoy the art of this book. The drawings — several sketch-book-sheets-worth to a page and drawn with a customized Pelikan 120 — come captioned with allegedly true-life dialog. “Would you like rice or chips with th’ sizzling shrimp?” in a Chinese restaurant in Cork, Ireland. As Griffith kisses the Blarney Stone, another man urges, “Don’t look down, lad, don’t look down.” And from one of a trio of men lazing poolside: “What are you, 60? 61? Guys our age are perfect for women her age. What is she — 36? They’re lucky to get us.”

And every so often someone — often his wife, Diane — asks, “Are you drawing me?”

Charming, absurdist stuff. As one middle-aged guy in Victoria says, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. How about those East German jails!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I’m reminded of that Albert Einstein quote that I think is often misapplied: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Ad agencies tout it as a corporate motto for being clever. But while it’s true imagination can be the spark that generates great ideas, without knowledge you’re just playing with soggy matches.

In sequential art, we can see a direct line of informed artists building upon the work of their predecessors, to which they blend in their own imagination. See what I mean:
Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese is his internationally known protagonist) acknowledged his debt to comic-strip predecessors Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon). As Jaime Hernandez moved from very detailed illustrations to more impressionistic work in Love & Rockets, his heavy inks began to resemble Pratt’s — which of course in turn evoked the chiaroscuro of Caniff. And when Jessica Abel (La Perdida) visited Kalamazoo, Michigan, last week, she cited Hernandez as an early inspiration for her work.

So we can draw a link from Sickles and Caniff (starting in the 1930s) through Pratt (1970s to 1990s) to Hernandez (1980s up to today) to Abel (2000 and still going), to name just a few practitioners.

Another would be Frank Miller. (Now there’s a man who loves chiaroscuro — look at Sin City.) In his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Miller writes that the notion to make his version of Robin a girl came from Love & Rockets.

And as readers of that dark, grim series also will recall, political and military tension mounts between the United States and the Soviet Union over the island of Corto Maltese ….

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jessica Abel in Kalamazoo, Part 2

“You have to grow up reading comics to want to make comics,” Jessica Abel told the audience last Wednesday, Nov. 04, at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library. And because girls historically didn’t read comics, there haven’t been very many women writing or drawing comics.

It used to be there were one in 300 women in the comics industry, Abel said in an offhand estimate. That had grown to about one in 30 when she started some 20 years ago. Abel guessed that figure today to be about one in three.

(I wonder if Abel has ever had this conversation with Amelia Rules creator Jimmy Gownley, who’s promoted comics for younger children, especially for girls ….)

Abel noted manga as “huge” for her students when she starting teaching comics at New York’s School of Visual Arts in the early ’00s. “It’s influence is now less pervasive,” she said, with what appeared to be a small sigh of gratitude.

She cited Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie and Hopey stories in Love & Rockets as a primary inspiration for her work. You can see a little Maggie and Hopey in Abel’s own major graphic novel, La Perdida — a character starts out “with a chip on her shoulder. Then something happens,” she said.

Abel confided she’s doing more writing than drawing these days. She is currently working on scripts for a character called Trish Trash, a roller-derby girl on Mars, among other projects, including a novel.

You can see my review of La Perdida posted Sept. 06, 2009, and of Hernandez’s Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories posted Oct. 14, 2009.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Jessica Abel in Kalamazoo, Part 1

Jessica Abel, who teaches comics at New York’s School of Visual Arts, believes comics shouldn’t be considered a visual art. It’s narrative art, she contends, and should be thought of — and taught — in the same category as film studies.

That whole idea of narrative was the key to her presentation Wednesday evening at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library, during which she critiqued, sometimes harshly, her own early work.

“When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she told the audience (many of whom gripped sketch pads during the presentation). Her big problem was not the drawing, but that she didn’t know how to tell a story. The question of “What happens next” stumped her, she claimed.

It was while she was doing mini-comic Artbabe that a fellow cartoonist suggested to her that Archie comics, of all things, contained perfectly distilled stories. So Abel, a former writing major, began the first of several analyses of good story-telling. With Archie, it’s this basic: 1 Archie wants Veronica. 2 He meets an obstacle. 3 He finds a solution. 4 There are consequences. 5. There’s the concluding situation.

Abel’s quest for the perfect narrative evolved, through what she deemed the Three-Act Story Structure (set-up, conflict, resolution), to a more complex Narrative Arc, which she worked out while she wrote and drew La Perdida — a spark sets the protagonist’s life out of balance; the protagonist tries to settle the problem or question; moving on to a climax, in which that problem or question is definitely answered … or not answered.

Sometimes that “answer” is an internal epiphany, for the character or for the reader, Abel said.

She and her husband, Matt Madden, are working on a new version of their very helpful Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. (It helped me — I’d never heard of an Ames Lettering Guide before.)

See my review of La Perdida posted Sept. 06, 2009.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Journey Into Mohawk Country

Much of the fun in George O’Connor’s Journey Into Mohawk Country occurs off to the side, away from the main action. A Dutch explorer teases a pair overly eager dogs by pretending to toss a bone for them to fetch … only to be caught by the dogs’ annoyed Mohawk owner. Two other explorers squabble like children while crossing a stream, with both ending up wet and cold.

This incidental tomfoolery is primarily because Journey Into Mohawk Country is O’Connor’s treatment of the real-life journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who in December 1634 headed off 100 miles into what we know today as Manhattan, to settle a trade agreement for beaver pelts with the Iroquois. O’Connor contends he altered none of van den Bogaert’s entries.

O’Connor’s accompanying illustrations are delightful and often playful — no mean feat given the dangers van den Bogaert and his companions faced. Frigid temperatures, potentially hostile native Americans, wild animals and becoming tragically lost were constant threats.

But as O’Connor notes in his introduction, van den Bogaert’s “words provide a glimpse into a much different time and place, and above all into his state mind.”

It’s is a very interesting journey.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Battle Angel Alita Last Order 12 — The Story

On one level, the ongoing story for Battle Angel Alita: Last Order is pretty simple: Alita and her team are fighting their way up the table to win the Zenith of Things Tournament. The grand prize has changed a few times over the course of this long tale, but in volume 12, released in America two weeks ago, it became sovereignty over heavenly Tiphares and the slums of the Scrapyard below for the winners.

But this years-long Gunnm tale has seen countless twists —enemies became allies, allies were torn asunder, huge battles were mounted, individuals fought for honor — with backstories and unexpected side trips all over the place. The adventures have been powerful, thrilling, tragic and sometimes even pretty funny.

And there’s a lot of talk, much of it about free will and destiny (and sometimes about flan). By volume 12, Alita has grown to womanhood (with, for some reason yet to be explained, a tail), but there’s a jarring recent development — cyborg Alita has discovered that, somewhere along the way, her brain was replaced with a bio-chip. So her soul-shredding question: Is she still truly human?

Alita is fighting to win the ZOTT and free Tiphares and the Scrapyard. But she also is struggling to understand her own destiny. In the final panels, as Alita appears to be calmly floating in a graceful cartwheel, she wonders: “I feel as if I’m falling from a great height … in a curious state of suspension and deep loneliness …. If I’m moving faster, accelerating in this descent … what awaits me at the end?”

I posted a preview story on this book’s release, with background on the character and story, in August.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order — The Art

If I have one complaint about the excellent Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series, it’s the size: Viz Media publishes the books in tiny paperback proportion that does a disservice to Yukito Kishiro’s marvelous art. (See my earlier post, “Alita Returns in October.”)

In France, the earlier books in his Gunnm series were printed bande dessinée style, in a 10-by-seven-inch format. Those giant pages gave space to Kishiro’s magnificently detailed drawings. (The one image that immediately comes to mind is that of the tiny heroine, Alita — or Gally, as she’s called in the Japanese and French versions — standing high above the city atop a Space Needle-like structure … an image James Cameron “borrowed” for his Dark Angel TV series, before he announced his intention to make a Battle Angel Alita movie.)

The Viz versions sometimes require the reader to look and look again to take in everything that’s going on in the panels, some only one and a half by two inches big. That’s especially the case in volume 12, just released last week in America, which features a battle royale among hundreds of would-be karate competitors in a giant sports event, ZOTT, the Zenith of Things Tournament.

Think how breathtaking the artist’s drawing of the repair work being done to the outer space ZOTT arena would look, or his rendering of Toji’s vision of Planet Karate, if given more room in this edition.

Kirshiro’s drawings are often complicated, but so, too, are the Gunnm stories. More in the next post ….

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why We Love Maggie and Hopey

When Jaime Hernandez started out with Love & Rockets, with his brothers Gilbert and Mario in 1982, his drawing was very detailed and the stories fantastical. “Mechanics,” his first installment, featured riot-torn villages, giant sea creatures (“Wow!” says one character. “That’s the stuff comics are made of!”), and a quest to repair a top-secret rocketship that’s crashed in the jungle. The book was titled Love & Rockets, after all.

But over time, Hernandez’s illustration became less detailed, focusing only the more important elements, using deep blacks and lots of white space. And the stories, as we can see in the giant collection Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (from L&R issues 1982 through 1988), while still occasionally dallying with would-be super heroes and fading female pro wrestlers, evolved into tales of gang wars, broken hearts and desperation. Mexican-American Maggie Chascarrillo and Hopey Glass get on with their lives, together and separately, in southern California. More love, less rockets.

By the time we get to “Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz,” about three-quarters into this book, life for our protagonists is not as much a fun-filled adventure as they are painted with real-life sadness and tragedy.

Ne’er-do-well Speedy, on whom Maggie has a longtime crush, desperately tries to talk to her about how things have gone terribly wrong for him:

“I’ve just about ****** over everybody that ever meant anything to me, you’re all I’ve got left …. And if I ever lost you, I don’t know what I’d do. I need you, Maggie, I need you bad. I never really wanted Esther or Blanca or …. You’re the one I’ve want for a long ol’ time. You knew that. You did. Please, Maggie, keep me going. Only you can do it for me. I love you.”

Whereupon long-suffering Maggie justifiably loses her temper. “Don’t you dare put this on me!” she shouts. “… I can’t do it any more. It hurts too much.”

What follows is still, for me, the most touching sequence of final panels in graphic novels. You really need to read it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese, Part 2

It’s been argued that as Hugo Pratt became famous, his drawing became lazy. Just look at the marvelous detail in his early work, such as The Ballad of the Salt Sea (featuring Corto Maltese’s first appearance, in 1967) and Banana Conga and the other African and Latin American stories, some critics have said. Then compare those to the loose, broad strokes of the cartoonist’s later stories, and particularly of his final books, such as Les Helvetiques and Mu: The Lost City (from 1987 and 1988 respectively).

But I think they’re wrong. While it may be true some of Pratt’s work might appear a bit hurried, his detractors overlook the mystical, surreal influence that took a stronger hold as the stories of his protagonist’s life evolved.

By the wonderful Golden Mansion of Samarkand (1980), for example, the characters do appear slightly more cartoony — and less rigid. But look at the detail in the landscape, in the ornamental paintings on the buildings. And in Tango, while Corto and Butch Cassidy might be drawn with deceptively quick strokes, see how specific everything else is rendered. Gosh, you can pick out the rivets on the street cars.

Reality is still hard-edged; the people are merely passing through. (What better way to depict characters who believe Buenos Aires is so romantic it has two moons.)

So by the time we get to the melancholic tales of Les Helvetiques — most of that Swiss adventure is a dream, after all — and Mu — the search for a mythical lost land, where practically every character except Corto dies or vanishes by the end — we and Pratt’s characters are truly disconnected from real life.

I don’t believe Pratt was taking the easy way out. Instead, he was being very, very clever.

My earlier post on Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese can be found here.

More on Pratt, Corto, their separate adventures and Pratt’s art in future posts. And, yes, used, English-language versions of most of these books can be found (though I’m not so sure about
Les Helvetiques and Mu).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Craig Thompson’s Childhood

“You look like you’re staring up at the stars,” says high-school-aged Craig to Raina, as the two lie in bed, not completely naked.

“I am,” she replies.

“Can you see through the ceiling?”

“I can.”

And with that, the sky of their bedroom fills with star-bright snowflakes. Soon, they slumber together in a gentle paisley and flute-filled background.

Craig Thompson infuses much of Blankets with this dreamy quality, not only in the telling of his first love, but in the difficult always-winter childhood recollections, too.

His story also involves chilly Christian fundamentalist parents who punish Craig and his brother for the slightest infractions by forcing one or the other of them to spend the night in the attic crawl space. As Craig gets older, he meets Raina, who has challenges of her own as her family struggles with her parents’ divorce.

Oh, and there’s the guilt. No matter what he does, Craig seems to conclude he’s broken some Biblical will of God. There are certainly enough people in his life to convince him of that — teachers, classmates, ministers. (There’s a lot of Bible talk in Blankets, even if at the end of the tale the protagonist, in recalling his childhood, is more ambivalent about his own beliefs.)

Throughout the book, Craig tries to use his drawing to find his own way. Blankets may be his salvation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Part 2

But wait, there’s more to recommend The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: Many pages are devoted to Kurtzman’s sketches, overlays and layouts he put together for collaborators to use for their drawings. It’s a fascinating study in how good magazine and comic-book illustration — and art editing —used to be done.

The bio itself follows Kurtzman’s many attempts to control his destiny. He was the creator and the brains of MAD (and he’s the one who had the brilliant idea of taking it from a comic book to a magazine format), but he didn’t own it. He tried his own business ventures, involving humor and/or satire publications, but none succeeded. Unlike, say, Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit (see “The Creator,” posted earlier), Kurtzman’s business sense didn’t hold a candle his artistic sense, the authors say.

Here’s one example: When in 1956 Kurtzman demanded legal control of MAD, owner Bill Gaines countered with an offer of a 10% equity share. Kurtzman walked. Five years later Gaines sold the popular magazine for $5 million. Kurtzman would have made $500,000.

This is a jam-packed book, rich with tales of the time and Kurtzman’s wonderful work. It shows us why the Harvey Awards are named for him.

See my earlier post on this book here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Part 1

Illustrator Dave Gibbons says when he and writer Alan Moore started to think about Watchmen, they agreed they wanted their super heroes to look like “Superduperman,” a comic-strip feature created back in 1953 for MAD magazine by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood. (Sickly Clark Bent, assistant copy boy for the Daily Dirt, has an unrequited crush on Lois Pain, girl reporter. But he has no better luck as a costumed crime fighter. “So you’re Superduperman instead of Clark Bent! Big deal!” Lois proclaims after smacking him silly. “Yer still a creep!”)

That Gibbons and Moore picked a silly comic hero for their tragic outlaws isn’t that surprising. Everyone borrowed from Harvey Kurtzman or were inspired by his work, in one form or another. Just ask Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Terry Gilliam or Harry Shearer ….

Testimony to this can be found in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhl, published this summer. It’s the kind of biography Kurtzman deserves — it’s as much picture book as narrative. It includes the abovementioned “Superduperman” feature along with lots of other art and writing samples from MAD magazine, plus pages from Kurtzman’s other well-known creation, “Little Annie Fanny,” which ran in Playboy from 1962 to 1988.

But even better: This book shows his early work from the 1940s, plus examples from Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, war-themed comic books for EC Comics that eschewed the then-standard gung-ho heroics for stark realism and often frightened protagonists.

To be continued …

Friday, September 11, 2009

Small Tours for ‘Stitches’

During the initial stop of his tour to promote his first, just-published graphic novel, Stitches, David Small emphasized less is more.

A Caldecott Medal and E.B. White Award winner for his children’s books, Small discussed with the more than 700 folk who packed the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Public Library downtown auditorium yesterday evening his decision during the drawing of his childhood memoir to cut back drastically on the explanatory narrative boxes and dialog he’d initially planned to include.

“I decided to eliminate as much language as possible, and trust the reader,” he said during the show-and-tell portion of his presentation.

In one example of some early panels Small displayed for the audience, the narrator recalls when his grandmother allows the water in the bathroom sink to run until it is extremely hot — she then sticks six-year-old David’s hands under the scalding water. In the published version, those narrative boxes are gone. Now the grandmother only says, “First we’re gonna warsh your hands.” The solitary sound in the following panels is the ominous hiss of the water, and we see the steam and the old woman’s angry expression reflected in the mirror … then she grabs the small boy’s wrists, and we see the fear on his face as he realizes what’s about to happen. Then he screams in pain.

What Small was searching for was the “silence between words,” citing works by favorite playwrights Pinter and Beckett, the movies of Hitchcock, Bunuel, Polanski and Antonioni, and the minimalist music of Morton Feldman. (You can hear some of Feldman’s work here.) Small wanted to work without adjectives, the artist said.

In other words, as with any good novel, don’t tellshow.

And for a man who contended the omnipresent irony in our current culture “is soul-sucking,” he had to admit the coincidence of his sparse approach in Stitches and the overwhelming silence among the forlorn characters in this book. The people of his childhood did not share their feelings, only their pain.

A word about those characters, drawn in swathes of somber gray shadows: This is not a cheery book, and Small clearly suffered an unhappy childhood, with parents who didn’t love him, ongoing depression, nightmares, and operations for a cancer his parents refused to explain or even admit to him. (As another attendee remarked to me at the Kalamazoo presentation, noting the packed house, “A lot of people for a downer of a book.”)

But there is a happy ending, of sorts, as Small himself admitted. As an adult, he enjoys a successful professional life and a happy marriage, and if he hadn’t had those experiences, he might not have turned out as he has. Writing and drawing Stitches was cathartic. He has found his way back up and out of the rabbit hole.

Small lives in Mendon, about 20 miles south of Kalamazoo, which is why the Kalamazoo Public Library was his first stop. His Stitches tour is scheduled to include New York, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston and Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Funny ‘Bone’

Did you see what he did there? For his Bone series, Jeff Smith took Walt Kelly’s Pogo characters — see how much Fone Bone and his goofy cousin, Smiley Bone, look like shaved versions of Pogo and Albert the Alligator — and sent them off on adventures in a mysterious land. (On his home web site, Smith acknowledges The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as inspiration.)

Along the way, the Bones meet all sorts of magical and scary creatures, as well as a beautiful maid who lives in the woods with her grandmother, who in turn races cows as sport.

The books are silly and fun. When surrounded by nasty giant “rat creatures” in “Out From Boneville,” the grandmother’s plan is straight out of Doctor Who: “When I say run … you run! Got that?” “What?! That’s your plan? Run where?” Fone Bone shrieks in panic. Grandma’s smiling reply: “Ready? Here we go!” Crasssh! Crunch! Thud! Wak!

I remember seeing Smith’s characters in Ohio State University’s campus newspaper, before he began self-publishing them. Now they’re ranked number four on CBC Radio’s top 10 graphic novels list, along with Maus, Watchmen, Love & Rockets and Persepolis.

They’ve traveled a long way. Good for them.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

‘La Perdida’s’ Unreliable Narrator

The opening to Jessica Abel’s La Perdida, when Carla arrives in Mexico City, is all cluttered and rushed, with text boxes sometimes at both the tops and bottoms of the people-packed panels.

Abel is showing us the city’s own hectic life, with its taxis, vendors and mashers (“Hey, skinny! I’ll make you fatter!”). Once Carla gets inside her friend’s apartment, though, everything calms down. The drawing style remains scratchy, and heaven knows, these characters talk a lot. But the perspective remains hers.

That point of view demonstrates what any self-respecting English major would recognize as that of an unreliable narrator: Carla doesn’t realize what we the readers see, as well as what most everyone else in this graphic novel picks up on — even her practically anonymous neighbors figure out what’s going on before she does.

Her visit to Mexico City drifts from that of dizzy soap opera and having trouble paying the rent to one of a kidnapping and imminent danger. And Carla, the protagonist, not only doesn’t figure out what’s going on until it’s almost too late, but she’s oblivious to her own culpability in the action.

It’s a slow boil. Until the kidnap plot begins to unfold, the story is taken up with quick-to-take-offense Carla and her aimless friends drinking and doing drugs, and frankly none of them are particularly pleasant. The men in particular almost without exception come across as, well, dumb. It’s hard to be concerned about any of them once things turn violent and scary. (Just because they pull off a kidnapping doesn’t mean they’ve become any smarter or more interesting. They’re just more dangerous.)

But the cinematic drama of the final third of the book is truly effective. Carla, for all her self-centeredness, becomes a victim, too. Her final loss — her “perdida” — is moving. I guess all the more so for us being able to see what brought her to that point.

After all, the final passage of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the tale of another unreliable narrator, only works because of all that’s come before.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Creator

In the beginning, Will Eisner created The Contract With God, and he proclaimed it good. He called it a “graphic novel.”

Eisner was already famous for The Spirit, and he’d achieved success in both newspaper comic strips and comic books — he’d even created comic-book packages to bundle into newspapers. (See But in 1978, he wrote and drew The Contract With God, about the residents of a Bronx tenement at the fictional 55 Dropsie Avenue.

In the introduction to a later edition that also includes A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue, the rest of the trilogy, the artist recalls how he coined the phrase “graphic novel” in “a futile effort to entice the patronage of a mainstream publisher.” He figured “novel” sounded better than “comic book.” (Eisner also came up with the term sequential art.) The rest is history.

These stories, taken from Eisner’s childhood memories, are occasionally funny and almost universally sad. They relate the Great Depression-era woes of frustrated mothers and wives and cheating husbands, ungrateful children, out-of-work bankers, sinister gangsters, golddiggers, worn-down rabbis, anti-semitic building superintendents, faded divas and alcoholic singers, as well as that of Izzy the cock-a-roach, as they all try to get on and get along. (God figures in many of the tales, too.) Their comings and goings intertwine, sometimes to their benefit, but sometimes not. When it rains, it’s a deluge — water rises above ankle-deep, to the second or third step. Their challenges are heartbreaking.

The characters, for all their real-life troubles, remain drawn in Eisner’s cartoony style: The good looking women are dames, the handsome men are just this side of cads, the bad guys are weasels and the goons are, well, goony. Yet they are real. Look at the opening picture in the story “Shabbasgoy”: well-dressed Elton Shaftsbury II, who lost everything in the stock market crash, stands in the falling snow near a subway entrance. He’s cold — see his hunched shoulders — and he’s reduced to selling apples, at five cents apiece. The tall spire behind him highlights his isolation; he doesn’t touch the apples or the subway stair post. He is completely alone, and his body language shows us that is exactly how he feels.

I saw Eisner once, in the mid-1980s at a conference for comic strip artists as part of Ohio State University’s Cartoon Library and Museum. He was asked what advice he would give to those trying to succeed in newspaper comic-strip syndication. His answer essentially was, Ah, forget about syndicates, they’ll just break your heart. Do comic books instead. Then he smiled.

The man was brilliant and he knew his mind. Always, apparently.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese, Part 1

About two-thirds of the way into Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese in Siberia is a picture of the protagonist racing across the top of a speeding train, hopping from one gun-mounted turret to another, arms out for balance, pistol in one hand and scarf straining in the wind … all the while his white sailor’s cap handsomely affixed. And the first time I saw it, about 10 years ago in a store in Paris, thumbing through one of those lovely, tall bande dessinées, I thought, this is pretty cool.

The story concerns the attempts of Corto, the gentleman-of-fortune captain without a ship, and his occasional ally Rasputin to capture an armored train carrying 160 tons of the Czar’s gold across Asia in 1919. Corto is working on behalf of an all-female Chinese secret society called the Red Lantern; Rasputin, as always, is working for himself. Along the way they must do battle with assorted villains including real-life crazy Baron von Ungern-Sternberg and a dead-ringer for Marlene Dietrich — this, in part, is Pratt’s version of the movie Shanghai Express. (Whether Rasputin is supposed to be the real Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who captivated Tsar Nicholas II and his family, is not clear; the character himself is never cozy with the truth.)

The exciting, intelligent tale is filled with dreams — as many of Pratt’s stories are — smart-aleck humor, poetry, philosophy and much derring-do, including a battle at sea and a train hijacking, an airplane crash, lots of gun fights and exotic locales, betrayals and heroics, and even Santa Claus and his reindeer.

And then there is the art itself — moody and stylish, in a Milton Caniff-infleunced chiaroscuro vein, with dashing characters determined to change destiny to suit their overwhelming desires.

Corto Maltese in Siberia is probably my favorite of the dozen Corto adventures (there’s also an animated movie, Corto Maltese: La Cour Secrete des Arcanes, but I’ve only found the DVD in French), but I love all of Hugo Pratt’s books. They certainly improved my French comprehension as I read all the Corto Maltese bande dessinées I could find.

The good news is English-language copies be found at reasonable prices if you haunt the used bookstores. Track them down and take a look. Pratt’s stories are unequalled.

English language version: Corto Maltese in Siberia (Corto Maltese)

(More on Pratt, Corto, their separate adventures and Pratt’s art in future posts.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Started With Scorchy

When Hugo Pratt set about to design the logo for his mythic adventure hero Corto Maltese, he consciously imitated Milton Caniff’s famous Terry and the Pirates lettering — dynamic and fun, bold and spunky.

Except that Caniff didn’t draw that famous logo. It was created by his longtime friend, drinking buddy and fellow cartoonist, Noel Sickles. If you want to really know about sequential art, you need to look at Sickles.

As pointed out in Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, when Sickles inherited the adventure strip of airplane ace Scorchy in 1933, he tried to copy the dodgy art work of his predecessor. But, it seems, he just couldn’t do it for long. Sickles was too good. The transformation was like Dorothy opening that door after her house crash-landed in Oz.

This is a giant book, which is good as it contains every Scorchy Smith strip Sickles wrote and drew, three years worth, plus a few before he took it over and a few after he left to pursue magazine illustration (and there are plenty of samples of that, too, along with his biography). Sickles’s comic strip illustrations are, in a word, splendid. His colorful heroes bristle and his femme fatales slink as well as anyone’s — including his pal Caniff’s.

Even better, the detail Sickles managed to squeeze into those tiny daily panels — of air battles and of trains run amok, of cowboy ranches and jungle villages, sun-baked seaports and snow-covered hideouts, of open fields and the coming dusk — are enough to cause any cartoonist tears of envy. As Sickles himself boasted, he could draw anything.

And, by golly, he really could.

(You can read more about the work of Sickles and Caniff, together and separately, in Ron Goulart’s 1975 book, The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips in the Thirties. I hope to devote a post to that book soon.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Charm of ‘Strangers’

When I first glanced at Strangers in Paradise, I thought Terry Moore’s comic books were somewhat derivative of Jaime Hernandez’s wonderful long-running Maggie and Hopey stories in Love & Rockets.

Now that I’ve spent more time with Moore’s Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book 1, I’ve concluded the series, featuring Katchoo and Francine, really is excellent in its own right. However, similarities remain apparent: two young women stumble through their challenges with life, love, their own sexual identities and each other. One of Moore’s protagonists even has issues with her weight, just like Maggie.

Also just as with Love & Rockets, Strangers in Paradise starts about one thing but drifts into other territory. The difference is it took awhile before L&R became less about rocket ships and more about romance. Strangers in Paradise’s back-and-forth story and tone transitions, however, from coping with disloyal men or a visiting drunken relative to fleeing the Mafia, are sometimes jarring.

And I have some nits to pick: The poetry/song lyrics can become repetitive in the collected edition (they were written in, I assume, as a thread to bind the individual comic books’ narrative). And while the drawing on the whole is detailed, atmospheric and beyond reproach, there was one point in the story where I thought that was Katchoo viciously attacking a down-at-heels private eye who’s been tailing her, only later to be told, no, that was some whole other angry, blond character …. (Gosh, it sure looks like Katchoo.)

But the tales of Katchoo and Francine have their own charm and deserve the Eisner and Reuben awards they’ve won. The characters’ confused, on-the-shirtsleeves emotions make them real and credible … even while the battling-the-bad-guys parts might not.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Alita Returns in October

The 12th installment of what’s being called in the United States Battle Angel Alita: Last Order will be out in October. If you’ve not been following Yukito Kishiro’s decades-long story of Gally (renamed, by some marketing person, no doubt, as Alita for English editions), which started in the Gunnm series, you’re missing one of the most breath-taking stories ever — in sequential art, in graphic novels, in all story-telling.

Gunnm (pronounced “gun-moo,” Japanese for “little gun”) concerns Gally/Alita, a female cyborg found in a trash heap and brought back to life by Doc Ido. As Gally grows up, and slowly discovers more about her super powers, her own questionable past as well as her purpose, she meets, loves and fights all manner of good and evil. But no enemy is truly all bad, and no ally is completely trustworthy.

The drawing is exquisite — the men are handsome and comic-looking, the women can be gorgeous and grotesque; tableaus are beautiful in their peace, shocking in their violence. Oh, have no doubt: Kishiro’s future world is filled with carnage, both in its sports, in which Gally ultimately becomes a participant, and its squalid everyday affairs. Lots of characters die, and almost always messily. Shot, blown up, chopped into pieces, crushed, smooshed against walls, dropped from tall buildings. Life here isn’t ever safe for anyone.

And yet the stories can be funny and at other times so touching as to break your heart. In Angel’s Ascension, arch nemesis Professor Desty (note: not “Destiny,” but close) Nova tricks Gally by entering her dreams, where he weaves a long fiction in which the two are devoted friends. He succeeds in fooling the young girl into being unaware of her own powers, but in one scene we realize he has trapped himself, as well: The two are sitting on a rooftop, watching the skyline and blowing soap bubbles, when Gally casually asks if he’s ever been in love. Nova thinks about it. “If one can truly believe in happiness, one can only have this prayer,” he ultimately replies, putting a protective arm across her shoulder. “Let this moment last forever.” Wonderful stuff.

Kishiro finished the Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita stories in the 1990s and had moved on to other ideas. But he was pulled back to Gally and, instead of picking up the tale where he’d left off, he started a new storyline, branching off the main Gunnm story just shy of its (I think) marvelous conclusion. With the Last Order series, he is creating a new ending for Gally and her friends and enemies, as well as a new destiny — not just for her but for all humankind.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tardi Classic to be Released in English

In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Jacques Tardi and Jean-Claude Forest’s Ici Même in English for the first time, under the title You Are There.

For the past 34 years, Tardi’s illustrations have brought to vivid life several existing written works, some for the wonderful but now defunct a suivre magazine or for Casterman publishing in France. (And a number of them are available in English, to be found at second-hand shops or through American Book Exchange.) Among my favorite series to which Tardi has turned his hand:

• Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma, who prowls the arrondissements of occupied and, later, post-WW II Paris, smoking his pipe and often getting caught up in much more than he bargained for. When he’s not stopping off for a drink or three somewhere, that is.

• The artist’s own Adele Blanc-Sec, journalist and generally cranky amateur sleuth, whose sometimes-hallucinatory adventures have involved demons in the Eiffel Tower, rampaging mummies, and multi-tentacled monsters rising out of the Seine to snatch infants from their strollers. Occasionally our heroine even gets around to writing about her escapades to pay the rent. (Did I mention her crankiness? “Blanc-sec” means “dry white.” Get it?)

• But Tardi’s masterpiece, for me, is the four-volume Le Cri du Peuple (The Cry of the People), based on Jean Vautrin’s novel about the 1871 Commune uprising — heart-breaking, human and cruel, with credible people in horrific times.

What’s so great about Tardi? Yes, the heavy-lined characters are cartoony-looking, and silly things often happen to them — in You Are There, Arthur Même loses his estate, retaining ownership of the surrounding walls, so he dashes about opening the gates for the new owners and charging a fee by lowering down a bucket; Adele Blanc-Sec gets put into a coma by a mad scientist, missing all of WW I, and she awakens to find her apartment deluged with unopened mail; a drunk Nestor Burma puts on bright-red clown’s nose, and wears it through much of one of his violent investigations.

But, oh, their expressions. Watch as Burma’s face slips from smug to baffled in the space of a single panel. And who can deny the joy turned to outrage of the Commune members, arms raised and caps and stovepipe hats askew, as they face down the overwhelmingly fortified army troops — “Vive la Commune.”

Tardi’s characters are funny-sad people living dangerous-absurd lives.

Tardi’s work has been significantly influential in Europe, and I for one eagerly await You Are There to these shores. Vive Tardi.