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.