Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bill Willingham’s Fables

I like Bill Willingham’s writing. But I like it more when he’s also illustrating his own stories.

That’s what’s missing from his Fables books. The tales are clever and surprising — Willingham is a great storyteller — and the dozen or so artists I’ve seen drawing the comic books and graphic novels convincingly convey a fairy tale feel.

But I miss Willingham’s own wise-guy touch. I adored his Elementals comic book series from Comico in the late 1980s, and was sorely grieved when someone else took the reins (and before we ever got a resolution to the Oblivion War storyline). And I felt like a victim of a bait-and-switch scheme when he drew fewer than a handful of his Shadowpact series a few years back.

Willingham’s characters can be by turns sexy, self-conscious, ornery and goofy.

In his new autobiography (which I plan to write about in a couple days), Backing Into Forward, Jules Feiffer says of the cartoonists who took over the Superman comic strip after co-creator Joe Shuster was forced out that they “drew better but felt less.” That sentiment can be applied here, too, I think: Bill Willingham might not be the most crafted illustrator to draw Bill Willingham stories, but he “feels more” than they do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crumb’s Genesis, Part 2

Having said all this, even if only fans — all 300,000 million of them — buy The Book of Genesis Illustrated, they’ll be well rewarded. As Jessica Abel, co-author of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and writer-illustrator of La Perdida, noted when she was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this past November, Robert Crumb is a genius with every art medium he touches. Genesis Illustrated, which Crumb contends took five painful years to complete, is packed with his distinctive lettering, perfect composition of image as well as panels to the page, and, of course, his magnificent drawings themselves.

The characters are wild-eyed, lusty and rough. But they’d have to be, wouldn’t they, given the adventures and travails they undergo in these stories?

And if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t Eve look a lot like Crumb’s wife Aline? Crumb’s made no secret of his interests in strong women ….

You can listen to Crumb interviewed on the book on NPR’s Talk of the Nation here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Crumb’s Genesis, Part 1

You have to wonder, who is the target audience for R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated?

His fans, I think, and maybe a few others. While marketing suggests it expected a wider audience, as well an onslaught from offended Bible true believers, I’m not sure either occurred.

In his introduction, Crumb raises his shield, noting, “I approached this as a straight illustration job. … That said, I know you can’t please everybody.” Well, it wasn’t truly a “straight illustration job,” as we have to assume Crumb came up with idea himself, or certainly agreed to it. I doubt anyone forces him to take on any work he doesn’t want.

It does seem like a great, Hollywood-style high-concept moment, though, doesn’t it? “I know,” says some publicist, “let’s get that bad-boy Robert Crumb to illustrate the Bible! That’ll shock people! And we’ll sell ’em by the truckload.”

Except I’m dubious as to how shocking any of this could be to those already familiar with the tent. Crumb’s illustrations — depicting Creation and up through the funeral procession of Joseph, at the age of 110 — show the Old Testament populace as angry, embittered, in despair, laughing, lusting, sweating, dancing, wild-eyed … just as it says in the book itself.

For folk who are shocked, it can only mean they’re really not that knowledgeable with the source material. As it warns on the cover of Genesis Illustrated, “Nothing left out!” “All 50 chapters!” and “Adult supervision recommended for minors.”

It’s powerful stuff, Crumb himself admits.

More to come on this.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

OSU Festival of Cartoon Art

Speakers have been announced for the 10th triennial Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University. They will include Art Spiegelman (Maus), whom I saw give a lively albeit smoky lecture when he was in Michigan a few years ago touting In the Shadow of No Towers; Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead); Patrick McDonnell (Mutts); Matt Groening (The Simpsons, Life in Hell); Roz Chast (lots of cartoons in The New Yorker and elsewhere); and Dan Piraro (Bizarro), among others.

Registration opens June 1, with events running Oct. 14 through 17 in Columbus. Attendance allegedly will be limited to 275.

Two additional highlights: an exhibit for the 100th birthday of Krazy Kat and a retrospective of Billy Ireland’s work. (Ireland was the editorial cartoonist at the Columbus Dispatch who mentored two of sequential art’s most influential cartoonists, Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates, and Noel Sickles, who wrote and drew Scorchy Smith.)

I attended a few of the early Festivals and found them phenomenally informative and entertaining, and cock full of surprises. At one of the forums, an attendee in the audience got up during a Q&A session to ask the panel an involved question about contracts. A wave of amusement rolled through the auditorium as we realized the questioner was Berke Breathed, creator of the then-popular Bloom County, who wasn’t even on the agenda, if I recall correctly.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Captain Easy Delayed. Again

Release of Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune has been held back once more.

Though Amazon.com lists a release date of today, the publisher, Fantagraphics Books, e-mailed me that “Amazon takes dates that we project at the first press
release we have about an item. They have no way of knowing if an item has been delayed or canceled.”

Fantagraphics now projects a May publication date for the Roy Crane collection. The March 16 date was announced after a January date flew by.

No idea what’s causing the repeated delays. Maybe Fantagraphics will be more forthcoming.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wimbledon Green, Part 3

OK, these may be my final thoughts on Seth’s wonderful Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World.

I wonder if the author considered titling it, The Mystery of Wimbledon Green. It has an abundance of clues, blind alleys, tempting hints and unresolved questions about the main character. Who is he really? Where did he come from? Why did he disappear?

One character early on even contends Green’s handlebar moustache is fake.

In a later chapter narrated by Roofings Hatch, Green’s valet and personal assistant — “though never his confidante” — Hatch relates how every afternoon Green labored over a manuscript. “Just what he was writing was never clear to me and as soon as he stopped writing, it went back in the safe,” Hatch recalls, a la one of the interviewees in Citizen Kane. “The manuscript was enormous and always growing larger. Perhaps it was an autobiography.”

He also mentions how Green often could be observed staring “pensively out the window. He seemed to be watching for something. Afraid.”

We’re never told what was in the manuscript, or what Green feared … though we can guess, from information elsewhere in the book.

But the most touching mystery, I think, comes from Hatch (and the author), as the valet tells how Green would spend an hour each day “answering letters, sorting new acquisitions and writing cheques ….” In that panel, Seth has drawn our hero reading a letter, and a single tear runs down cheek and onto that big white moustache.

Why is he crying? Who sent the letter? What does it say?

As with so many things in real life, we never find out.

Read my earlier posts on Wimbledon Green here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jules Feiffer

Backing Into Forward, a memoir by cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, comes out next Tuesday.

You know him. Pulitzer Prize-winner Feiffer is the author of the razor-tongued play Little Murders and the ground-breaking 1971 movie Carnal Knowledge (with Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret and Art Garfunkel) and creator of all those cynical-but-silly Playboy and Village Voice “Ode to spring” cartoons. He’s also written a wheelbarrow-full of children’s books as well as the excellent reference touchstone, The Great Comic Book Heroes, a copy of which I’ve treasured for decades.

And, of course, he apprenticed to Will Eisner.

In a perfect world, we’ll learn much about this incredibly influential artist — what he thinks, how he works — as we did about Charles Schultz from reading David Michaelis’s 2007 biography, Schultz and Peanuts. We can hope.

Read my post on Will Eisner’s The Contract With God here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wimbledon Green, Part 2

In Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World, Seth drops in selections from the Golden Age library of said “greatest comic book collector.” Here are a few of those wacky titles, with author’s descriptions:

Mighty Orbit #9 — “Sputnik inspired. Popular robot comic.”

Alimony Comics #3 — “I’m taking every cent,” declares the woman on its cover.

Patty Pigtails #1 — “Irritating girls’ comic.”
The Wubbs, no # — (Inspired by The Gumps maybe?)

Gee #48 — Featuring “the death of Capt. Well-Being.”

Keen Funnies #12 — “One of those perfect Saturday afternoon comics.”

And at the end of Wimbledon Green, the protagonist bids us, “Good night, dear friends.” Melancholy, perplexing at times and quite charming. The book itself, like the made-up Keen Funnies, is nearly perfect.

See Part 1 of my rave on Wimbledon Green here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wilmbledon Green, Part 1

In his introduction to Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World, Seth trashes his own work:

“The drawing is poor, the lettering shoddy, the page compositions and storytelling perfunctory,” he writes by way of apology to his loyal readers. “The whole thing was drawn in the spirit of ‘good enough.’ …Even I find some of the characters ugly.”

Is he kidding? Wimbledon Green is wonderful stuff. A great, heartfelt story combined with charming art.

A series of stories, actually. Billed as “from the sketchbook” of Canadian cartoonist Seth (aka Gregory Gallant), the series are told from various perspectives — not of all of which are trustworthy — of comic book dealers, longtime collectors, a valet and one private detective about the life of Wimbledon Green, an eccentric “force of nature” with a mysterious past (and future) who could deduce the publication year of a comic book merely by examining the staples or smelling the ink.

Seth also lovingly creates artists and characters from this fictional world’s Golden Age of comic books — Lester Moore and Hal Drake, the Green Ghost, hobos Fine and Dandy, Mr. Meteor and Sally Saturn, among others — and some are discussed in depth. He does this so fully, I wouldn’t mind tracking down a copy of Fine and Dandy myself, after reading Wimbledon’s “short talk” about them.

We should all be able to turn out such “shoddy” work as Seth’s Wimbledon Green. I strongly recommend this book.

More on Wimbledon Green next time.