Saturday, May 29, 2010

In the Floyd Archives

In a college lit class a number of years ago, I got into a semi-serious debate with the instructor as to whether T.S. Eliot’s footnotes for The Waste Land should count as part of the poem. I contended as the notes were published with the work, by Eliot, they should stand as belonging to the poem.

I recalled that argument when reading New York Times reporter Sarah Boxer’s In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary. Her notes at the end of the book not only explain much of her characters’ dialog, their conversations make little sense without these explanations.

Boxer’s Thurber-like-roughly-sketched rabbit, wolf and rat each consult a bird psychiatrist, who doesn’t seem to understand when they speak plain English.

“I’m being chased by a wolf,” a frightened Rabbitman tells Dr. Floyd.

“So,” replies the bird, “you think you’re being ‘chased’?” After Rabbitman leaves Floyd’s office, a wolf comes in. And so on. Much of the story seems to be a series Freudian in-jokes.

The real question is whether reading the notes, too, actually makes In the Floyd Archives any more enjoyable.

Maybe that just would be wish fulfillment.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Here’s a potential lesson for those of us who become discouraged after we find what we thought was a great inspiration is really not so great: Art Spiegelman in Breadowns, a reprinting of his partially autobiographical 1978 collection, tells how he got excited about a story of blacks in America depicted as mice and the Ku Klux Klan as cats. He was going to call it “Ku Klux Kats.”

He quickly realized he knew “bupkis about being black in America. Bupkis.”

Spiegelman of course later adapted the idea to Jews and Nazis, for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of genius, Maus.

But you have to admit, Ku Klux Kats is funny, though maybe not in the way he intended ….

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mark Crilley

Just as with studying art, when hunting for story ideas it’s best to go to the Masters, advised Mark Crilley, author of the popular graphic novel series for young people, Miki Falls and Akiko.

When he wanted to create his first book, he thought about The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — all tales of young people escaping into a fantasy land, he pointed out during his presentation this past Thursday at the Kalamazoo Public Library in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A graduate of Kalamazoo College and a student of Caldecott winner and National Book Award and Eisner Award finalist David Small (Stitches), Crilley also emphasized “thinking long and hard about the personalities” of your characters. For Spuckler in the Akiko series, for example, he came up with four points: wild, tough, friendly and “not too smart.” To reinforce that personality, he developed a specific voice for each character — “Then you’ll know what your character will and won’t say.”

Readers, he contended, can hear that voice — and therefore the personality — in the words the characters use.

During the Q&A, Crilley discussed color (“I’m a fan of a limited color palette”), layout (“Let the story lead you”) and scale — he draws his originals only slightly larger than how they’ll appear when printed. “I want to see it as it’ll look once it’s published. (Besides), I save paper that way,” he smiled.

As for which type of paper or drawing tool to use — pencil, Micron pen, pastels, acrylic paint — Crilley advised, “It’s not the paper, it’s not the pen …. It’s your eyes.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Good-bye to ‘Little Orphan Annie’: From Great Depression to Great Recession

“Daddy” and Asp slain! Cut down in a vicious battle!

But the mysterious giant, Punjab, finds their bodies, rescues them! He brings them back to life!

Though surely the local newspaper we received when I was a child carried Little Orphan Annie, I don’t remember it. (And I read every strip, from the top of the newspaper page to the bottom.)

What I do recall was reading Annie’s adventures from the 1940s, collected in a battered Big Little Book I discovered at grandparents’ house. (How they came by it I only can guess: My grandfather read racy crime novels, and my grandmother wrote what we’d now call romance fiction.)

The stories in that tiny book — with text on the left page and Harold Gray’s art on the facing page — certainly were more interesting than Annie’s goings-on by the 1960s, what I would have seen in the local paper. They definitely were scarier, and I don’t just mean Gray’s bleak, sinister drawings packed with deep shadows and malevolent, gloating bad guys.

Take a look through the reprinted Annie collections from the 1930s and ’40s. In one story, from 1937, the Asp throws an obviously terrified baby pig into the open jaws of an immense alligator … just to make a point to Annie to be careful. And many, many times abandoned, slip-of-a-girl Annie is separated from her dog and “Daddy” Warbucks, and is smacked and hit, tied up and trapped. The only reason people today must recall Annie as optimistic is because they’re confused with that musical. (“The sun’ll come out ta-marraw,” etc.)

Sure, Annie the protagonist hoped for the best. But as a strip from March 1936 reminds us, “she walks alone.” And “it’s just as well to keep an eye on ‘smart’ men” as our valuable possessions tend to go missing when they’re around (August 1939). And “Success is only for the few who can ignore the jeers of the mass (sic)” (April 1936).

And then there was Sandy, with the body of a wolf and the leering skull of a person. Creepy.

Doesn’t sound all that cheery, does it? But Gray was a master, in story and art, of atmosphere (even if his anti-New Deal sentiments could be jarring). Jay Maeder and Ted Slampyak’s current colorful version of Annie has tried to carry on, but the era of the adventure strip apparently has passed. Today’s newspaper readers, the few that remain, only have the attention span for a quick, faint joke, then are gone.

Or so we’re told by the newspaper editors who make the selections.

As someone who grew up in love with those adventure strips, I say that’s too bad for all of us.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Eisner/Miller, Part 3

In Eisner/Miller, Charles Brownstein’s joint interviews with Will Eisner and Frank Miller, the cartoonists note that many of their predecessors considered themselves entertainers. It wasn’t until the current generation that comic book writers and illustrators — Miller, Chris Ware, Seth, the Hernandez Brothers, et al. — started to think of themselves as artists.

As the form began to be contemplated as art, I guess, that made the practitioners artists.

Early on in the book, Eisner talks about how he did his own lettering for Contract With God — all of it — and Miller suggests that “was really a departure.”

“I was more mature” by then, Eisner replies, “and I had something to say.”

“You got to us. We started regarding ourselves as novelists. It’s as if you said ‘These’ll be permanent.’”

And thus was born the graphic novel and graphic novelists. Let there be light.

See my earlier posts on Eisner/Miller: A One-on-One Interview here and here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Eisner/Miller, Part 2

Eisner/Miller is a lot like Francois Truffaut’s famous 1967 book, Hitchcock, in which the two brilliant directors discuss everything from acting to camera angles. (Cameron Crowe tried to imitate that remarkable conversation in his 2001 book of interviews with Billy Wilder called, of all things, Conversations With Wilder.)

In Charles Brownstein’s insightful interviews, the two successful writer-illustrators range freely over the comic book landscape:

“To me, inking is sexy,” Will Eisner muses. “… It’s like downhill skiing.”

“Especially brush (sic),” Frank Miller adds. “… The brush is the most erotic tool you could work with. … It’s like alchemy.”

But, speaking of sexy, they never get around to what I’ve long wondered about: How the heck are you supposed to pronounce the name of P’Gell, the Spirit’s famous femme fatale? Pah-Gell? Pig-El? Pah-Jill? Or maybe like Place Pigalle in Paris, where late-19th century artists trolled for models? Je ne sais pas.

More to come: Eisner and Miller talk about the invention by you-know-who of the graphic novel. Find your way to my earlier post on this book by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eisner/Miller, Part 1

Last week CBS re-ran the Big Bang Theory episode featuring the gang meeting Stan Lee. The Marvel exec has a cameo toward the end of the story.

But the best touch, I think, occurred when one of the protagonists had to appear in traffic court, rather than going to the comic book store where Lee was signing books. The camera lingered on the judge’s nameplate long enough for us to get the point — his name was “Judge J. Kirby.”

I remembered this in-joke when I was reading Charles Brownstein’s Eisner/Miller: A One-on-One Interview. Amidst the discussions of problematic dialog balloons and color headaches, Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and the graphic novel itself, among other things, notes in the section called “Talking Out of School” that he’s “delighted to see at long last that (Steve) Ditko’s getting credit …” for co-creating Spider-Man.

Frank Miller, author and artist of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, points out Lee wrote a New York Times article that finally gave tribute to the reclusive Ditko. Miller adds that Jack Kirby, too, was never “as exposed as Stan Lee was.”

The reason? Miller suggests “writers are often the ones who talk history the best. People who draw for a living tend to have less free time … and artists tend to be less articulate.”


More on this book to come.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Fred the Clown

Several of the chapters in Roger Langridge’s “10 Steps to Happiness,” in his 2004 Fred the Clown book, are hysterical — particularly “Alphabet,” going from Fred the Amorous to Fred the Zoophyte (Langridge loves his word play); “Where the Smart Things Ain’t,” his play on Where the Wild Things Are with giant Pogo characters in pursuit of the protagonist; and especially “The Shoulders of Giants,” with its nod to Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, et al.

This last story in particular has a plot and a message rather than just another custard pie and a good gag.

Also attesting to Langridge’s talent are his variations on Peanuts, Garfield, Family Circus, The Phantom, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, the Yellow Kid, Krazy Kat, Blondie, the Hulk … and even Shakespeare. His brilliant essay on the Fred the Clown comic strip, by comics historian “Helvetica Darwin,” demonstrates his knowledge of newspaper strip legacy. (And it carries a laugh-out-loud final punchline.)

And I was delighted to see his inside reference to Doctor Who.

On the other hand, there’s a wide streak of truly unfunny incontinence jokes — no pun intended — that’s hard to ignore.

But maybe not all the stories are intended to play well with others. They bring a laugh, a pie in the face … and occasionally some really dumb, infantile jokes. Just like the socially troubled Fred himself.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mouse Guard

Also handed out on Free Comic Book Day this past Saturday was a sampling from David Petersen’s Mouse Guard Spring 1153, featuring the artist’s usual stunning and cute — yes, both stunning and cute at the same time — depiction of medieval warrior mice, rabbits and other woodland creatures.

The publication carried a promo for two upcoming Mouse Guard books — Mouse Guard: The Black Axe (starting with a September date) and Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard (beginning in May). For the latter, it noted “Mouse Guard creator David Petersen handpicks a who’s who of artists and writers to come and play in his world, including Jeremy Bastian, Alex Sheikman, Ted Naifeh, Gene Ha, Sean Rubin, Guy Davis, Terry Moore and Mark Smylie!”

Which means Legends won’t have any of that stunning/cute art of Petersen’s. Maybe this was to give Petersen time to work on Black Axe.

But in any case, and no disrespect to the other guest illustrators, is that a good thing?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Magnus, Robot Fighter

Among the samples given out on Free Comic Book Day this past Saturday was a preview combination edition of Magnus, Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, with release dates of Aug. 04 and July 14 respectively.

The connection between the two comics, aside from both using commas in their titles, is they initially were owned by Gold Key Comics. The relaunches are from Dark Horse Comics, and the previews were written by Jim Shooter.

I recall adoring the art of the original 1960s Magnus, by Russ Manning. (I wasn’t the only admirer, of course, as there’s a Russ Manning Most-Promising Newcomer Award given out as part of the Will Eisner Awards.) His characters posed with the handsome grace of Grecian gods; when they moved — to run or to punch or karate-chop evil robots — he drew them as if they were statues, carved in the act of their heroic deeds (not dissimilar to Greg Land’s technique, though Land’s characters appear as if they’re cheerily posing for Rolling Stone covers).

Russ Manning’s Magnus, Robot Fighter is available in collected editions.

The Magnus preview given out on Free Comic Book Day was illustrated by Bill Reinhold. His robot fighters aren’t from the same polished school as Manning’s. But they do seem to move around a lot more.