Sunday, November 30, 2008

Harvey Pekar Conversations

Oh, the business of the semester! After a long dry spell, VillageGrouchy is finally back on the air, taking a look at this collection of various interviews with Harvey Pekar, gathered together and edited by Michael G. Rhode (University Press of Mississippi, 2008). Containing interviews from 1984 to 2007, it covers nearly a quarter-century of Pekar's career, which gives it a valuable chronological depth. And besides the interviews themselves, there's a brief Introduction by Rhode and a fairly detailed chronology of Pekar's life and works, which may be useful if you, like me, were unaware that Pekar had appeared on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

The interviews themselves, as Rhode notes, often go over much the same ground, time after time: "Harvey's told some of his own stories so many times that he's overly familiar with them," Rhodes writes (xi). As a result, we read several times how Pekar and Crumb met in 1962 (an encounter also narrated multiple times in Pekar's comics), that Pekar claims his major influences from prose (fiction) writers, how Pekar and Dean Haspiel came to collaborate on The Quitter, and how the film version of American Splendor didn't really change a lot in Pekar's life. Given the level of repetition across the various interviews, it's sometimes hard to find the nuggets of real interest here. And yet there are some really fascinating moments.

One gem of the collection is surely the long interview by Jim Ottaviani and Steve Lieber, which is billed as "Another Survivor's Tale: The Harvey Pekar Interview," although Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, is also being interviewed. Focused primarily on Our Cancer Year, the two authors discuss their understanding of the book in some detail, discussing Frank Stack's drawing in particular. At other points, Pekar's choices of artists are also discussed, though usually in quite general terms. And when Brabner says that Pekar "started out as a kind of street-corner comedian and would tell the same story over and over again, like the Harvey Pekar name story" (75), it not only contextualizes the repetitiveness of Pekar's own interview responses, but crucially explains something about this important Pekar story.

The interviews are split fairly evenly between interviews conducted for comics-oriented publications and those conducted for broader audiences: even so, however, it is striking to see the degree to which the mass-media elements of Pekar's career are almost obsessively under discussion: Pekar's appearances on the Letterman show and the film version of American Splendor. Though Pekar clearly sees himself as centrally concerned with comics, his interviewers, too often I think, focus on these other aspects of his life.

In the end, while I often hoped for more probing questions on the part of Pekar's various interviewers, I think there's much that is of interest here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tomorrow Stories, vol. 2 (Alan Moore, et al).

It's a bad habit of mine to read things out of sequence. So, even though I haven't read Moore's Tomorrow Stories Volume 1, I'll throw out a few responses to Volume 2 here, a 2004 compilation of issues from 2000-02.

[Perhaps it's deeply ironic that I have so little regard for sequence on a blog concerned with what Scott McCloud (echoing Eisner, I think) describes as "sequential art": but at least I read the panels in sequence, if not the books.]

Though I haven't read all of the America's Best Comics titles or series, I've sampled a number of them over the years, and it looks like Tomorrow Stories is where Moore tries his hand at writing for humor--though not always as successfully as one might hope. Splash Brannigan (animated "science-hero" ink splotch) and Jack B. Quick (pre-pubescent farm kid/ super-scientist-inventor) are mostly concerned with spinning humorous superhero narratives (see, e.g., the "perfectly formed 'manure circle'" that alerts Jack B. Quick to the alien presence in "Why the Long Face?"), but the "adventures" of First American and U S Angel are also clearly tongue-in-cheek. Even the more seemingly serious Greyshirt stories occasionally descend towards the merely humorous (see the Nazi-cockroaches marching in Swastika-formation), as do the Cobweb stories. Some of the stories in this collection, though, just seem to hit a wrong note, as in the entire Greyshirt story presented as a musical, Broadway-style number (random musical notes in the speech balloons and all).

Typically for Moore, many of the stories find one way or another to work in various schticks from the history of the medium (even Herriman's Ignatz Mouse makes a small cameo), some of which are entertaining enough. These stories, of course, have none of the extended effect of Watchmen, but it's important to recognize how thoroughly comics history continues to inform, and even structure, the works of some of the key comics creators: not only Moore, but Spiegelman (In the Shadow of No Towers), Ware (Quimby the Mouse; Acme Novelty Library--the big Pantheon collection, I mean), and Kim Deitch (see my comments on Boulevard of Broken Dreams, in a previous post). I don't think I'd call this kind of intertextual referencing 'obsessive,' necessarily, but it's certainly insistent, and it demands our attention, I think. I'll certainly keep thinking about it. (Jared Gardner's essay on "archives" in the 2007 "Graphic Narratives" issue of Modern Fiction Studies partly addresses this issue).

I don't have much to say about the artists' styles here, although it's interesting to see Dame Darcy's style in a couple of Cobweb stories: it's a style much more familiar from black-and-white "indie" comics, and it has a kind of odd effect in the superhero narrative: but then again, the stories in question are a) a fairy-tale pastiche and b) a far-future frolic--both stories where the style doesn't really clash with the content. One wonders what the Greyshirt-Cobweb crossover would have looked like if half or all of it had been drawn by Darcy...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

American Splendor: Another Day

If I haven't said it before here on Village Grouchy, I'm a huge fan of Harvey Pekar's work. To be brutally honest, it was watching the film version of American Splendor that really got me into reading and thinking about comics seriously (though, of course, I had read Maus, Watchmen, and Understanding Comics a long time ago).

Pekar's latest collection, Another Day (collected from four 2006 DC issues) shows Pekar up to his usual antics: reminiscing, observing, plunging the toilet. We get regular appearances, too, from his wife Joyce Brabner and adopted daughter Danielle. Just as comforting, perhaps, are the regular appearances of some of Pekar's familiar stable of artists, especially the team of Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm and old hands Josh Neufeld and Dean Haspiel. Missing, however, are some other old favorites: Gerry Shamray, Val Mayerik, and (of course) Crumb. It is interesting, of course, to see Gilbert Hernandez draw Pekar, and Eddie Campbell, as well. One wonders if the success of the Pekar film has allowed him to expand the range of his artists.

Occasionally, in Another Day, the artists' styles come very close to either parody or a style that intentionally partakes of the "humor comics" mode (I'm thinking of Hunt Emerson's art in "Through the Generations" and "Uncapped"; also Bob Fingerman's "World Cup," where the first image of Pekar makes him look like a gnarled little leprechaun). Now, I haven't read every back issue of Pekar's comic, but this seems new to me. Not unwelcome, I think, but new (to me at least), and it gives a different feel to these stories, the first of which is actually structured to set up a kind of visual punch line in the final panel: "autobiographical" it may well be, but Pekar clearly recognizes that this story doesn't really work by being autobiographical: Pekar's personality is not at the center of the story. In the end it makes me think of other moments in Pekar's work where he steps out of the autobiographical mode entirely, such as his odd parody of/homage to Maus (I can dig up the reference, if readers out there want it).

More on Pekar and his artists to come from me in the future, I think.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Grouchy Village number 1!

A long hiatus on Village Grouchy, I am afraid, though I will make an effort to include posts a bit more frequently.

As you should be able to see from the image to the right, I have been experimenting a bit with photoshop and its ability to let one create "clip art" comics: I obviously have a lot to learn about how to get the best out of photoshop. And it may take me a while to figure out how to get to let me post an image that's a bit bigger and (more) legible.

We'll call the comic Grouchy Village: the characters are some hand-painted folk art masonite figures from maybe the 1950s or so. But the action is all 2008.

Hopefully, there will be more from Grouchy Village in the future.

If you click on the strip, it should enlarge enough to be legible.

(Thanks for this to Kyle, Ryan, Ann, and Rose--for their various levels of participation.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black Orchid (Gaiman and McKean)

It's hard to believe that Black Orchid (DC, 1991) is now almost twenty years old and that Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have been on and off collaborators for so long. This comic (originally printed as three comic books in 1989) is, I guess I have to admit, a superhero narrative of some sort (it includes appearances by Lex Luthor, Batman, and other DC stablehands, after all), but the crime-fighting Black Orchid (a strange female human-plant hybrid) dies in the first pages and is only potentially replaced by the end of the narrative.

The comic is almost entirely painted, rather than drawn, and in a palette of mostly green, purple, and grey. Outline drawings are almost entirely absent, though the lettering and text is done in a very traditional style (by the seemingly untiring Todd Klein). The introduction, by Mikal Gilmore, suggests that it makes plain that "most [new comics] still end up resorting to hackneyed moral and narrative customs: violent men save the world through violent choices or violent bravery. In this book something altogether different occurs" (n.p.).

But what occurs at the resolution of the plot is violent: a man is killed, though not by the Black Orchid figure, and she promises retaliation against Luthor if he "interferes" again in her or her sisters' lives: "whatever it is that he loves. . . . I will take it away from him." In a non-violent way, apparently? And the upshot of this encounter has the plant woman (and plant girl) leaving their Edenic Amazon retreat, where they are no longer happy: their return to the world is depicted as a kind of Fall, and the very last panels, showing the return to the city, are in a reddish (dare we say hellish) orange. I do think the book addresses the power of violence in comics, but it does so subtly, and the ending of this book is, for me at least, not a very happy one. A change has come, Eden is lost, and the heroine is happiest to return to society, which is, in this book, the place where violence does seem to belong.

Or maybe that's just my take on it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (Abel and Madden)

I've been wanting to read this book (by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden; First Second, 2008) since I first heard of it, and I finally bit the bullet and shelled out the $29.95 at my local Big and Nasty. Subtitled "Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond," this book is essentially designed as the textbook for a 15-week studio class in comics creation, complete with homework assignments, in-class activities, and so forth. It makes me want to both take the class and teach it, and I guess that's a good thing on both counts.

I'd be the first to tell you that I can't draw a lick, and although Abel and Madden start off at the very beginning of the book by noting that that doesn't matter (and giving some nice examples to support the claim), a good deal of the book is usefully focused on the troublesome mechanics issues, including what pens to use, when to ink with a pen and when with a brush, and how to use your scanner and Photoshop to size your drawings. With sections on these things as well as figure drawing and lettering to complement chapters on one-panel comics, strips, narrative construction, and characterization, it's a book that usefully works to address both the art and the story side of comics, which is valuable in itself (I was delighted to find a brief discussion of a panel from Harvey Pekar's brilliant "Hypothetical Quandary" story, drawn by Crumb, which I had always known had a different look and feel from most Crumb works, and Abel and Madden's discussion of how this story is inked by brush rather than pen perfectly explained the difference: a fine illustration for why comics critics need some basic grounding in the materials of the genre). And yet, at the end, I thought "Boy, I'd really need to be able to draw to do all that." Though the authors acknowledge that clip art, collage, and possibly other modes can be used to create comics, this book offers suggestions and guidance only for drawing them.

Since the book is printed in black and orange, I was a little surprised not to see any real discussion of color (a disappointment, considering my recent Villagegrouchy post on the issue), and really the discussion focuses on black-and-white comics exclusively, as far as I can tell, although that's hardly a problem for most beginners to the field. I can't say I know the field exhaustively, but this is the best book of its kind I've seen, and I suspect it could work very well with a group of students in a properly equipped studio classroom.

If I decide to work through any of the exercises as a "Ronin" (what Abel and Madden call anyone who works through the book solo), I'll post some of them here, perhaps.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Kim Deitch)

The blurb on the back cover of Boulevard is by Art Spiegelman, who writes, "At last the general public will be allowed to discover Kim Deitch, one of the best-kept secrets in comics for over thirty-five years." Published by Pantheon in 2002 (and Pantheon is still probably the mainstream publisher most committed to graphic novels), Boulevard, it seems to me, is unlikely to really appeal to the "general public," even with the support of Spiegelman. Deitch's drawings often seem incredibly busy (sometimes virtually every surface is marked out by obsessively diagonal shading lines), sometimes to the point of hallucinatory confusion.

Yet, here, of course, that busy-ness and confusion is a reflection of the content of the narrative, and supports it, rather than simply annoying us. Still, the plot of Boulevard is itself nothing simple, following the fortunes of an animator/comics creator and his imaginary (or hallucinated) feline muse/alter ego/personal demon Waldo through much of the twentieth century (though not presented chronologically, either). Waldo, a cantankerous jerk, is a dark version of a trickster cartoon cat, whose shenanigans send one character to the asylum and another to life as a homeless bum.

For me at least, I had difficulty with the under-examined differences between comics are animated cartoons in the narrative. Clearly, there is something meta-fictional going on here, probably at more than one level, but Waldo's life within the creations of the main characters (as opposed to in their real world) is almost entirely in animated cartoons, with only a tiny excursion into comics, which makes the meta-fictional level either more complicated than I could follow or simply reliant on a too-easy equation between the two forms. Even so, Boulevard attempts an interesting vision of cartooning history, including an alternate origin story for Disneyland, another character based on Winsor McCay (called "Winsor Newton" so also riffing on the name of an ink and paint manufacturer, Windsor & Newton), and other various in-jokes: these, too, may ultimately be a barrier for members of the "general public."

I first ran across reference to this work in Jared Gardner's "Archives, Collectors, and the New Media Work of Comics" MFS Modern Fiction Studies - Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 787-806, and Gardner does have some interesting things to say about Deitch's work, so do track down that essay, if you're inclined.