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.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Color vs. Black-and-White

One of the theoretical questions about comics I have been thinking about lately (seriously!) is the difference color makes in comics. Even the usually reliable Scott McCloud pretty much punts on the question of color in his groundbreaking Understanding Comics, where the chapter on color is the shortest chapter in the whole book and relies heavily on a discussion of the history of color separation, four-color printing technology, and so on. Though I don't have my copy at hand, as I recall it, he ends up addressing the meaning or effect of color quite briefly and ineffectively. He shows a black and white panel (a volleyball in the air over the net) and claims it shows or implies motion, while the same panel, when colored, looks more like a static picture of a frozen moment in time.

To a degree, this comment works well enough in context: though McCloud doesn't put it quite in these terms, he suggests that the black-and-white panel is more "iconic" (in McCloud's sense) than the color, and thus encourages the reader's more active participation in the reading process, while the color panel is more representational and hence more liable to be read as external to the reader's participation. In short, the reader's participation makes the black-and-white panel seem like (subjective) action and the color panel seem more like (objective) photography.

(One could, perhaps, test such a theory: do color comics make more or less use of non-representational features such as motion lines, stink lines, and the like? Do these function to overcome the supposedly static effect of color comics? Or do they occur more frequently in black-and-white comics because black-and-white comics are inherently less representational?)

Since I am generally skeptical about McCloud's arguments about reader identification (and hence reader "participation"), I am suspicious of this line of argument. But I believe one thing is clear: in black-and-white comics, everything that is visible, everything that makes up the comic, is literally in the lines. In color comics, on the other hand, the colors serve as an additional visual element, filling in those lines (and, consequently, diminishing the visual impact of the lines). Both because the colors are often added by a different person than the artist and because of this diminution of the visual impact of the lines, I think color must minimize or diminish the effect of the comics artist's individual style (though some works, of course, may take more advantage of color from the start; see the sometimes-disorienting effects of V for Vendetta's non-use of outline drawing). Although I'm not sure how far I want to push it, I wonder if the use of color in comics doesn't serve to (implicitly) place the emphasis on those aspects of narrative that have the least to do with the artist's style: the plot, the language, the pacing. But I'm still trying to work it all out.

Regardless, it's small wonder, perhaps, that so many of the comics creators most powerfully concerned with establishing a style work in black-and-white.

Friday, July 11, 2008

He Done Her Wrong

My comics reading as a kid was pretty much limited to an occasional Archie or Richie Rich comic that came my way, and a handful of old rack-size paperback re-issues of Mad stories (Son of Mad and Bedside Mad, in particular) that had been my dad's in the 1950s. Probably far more influential in my mind was Milt Gross's classic 1930 novel-in-pictures, He Done Her Wrong, which I also read in a paperback copy of my father's.

Still when I read it, I find there are laugh-out-loud moments. The plot involves a trapper and trader seemingly from the great north woods and the beautiful blonde singer he falls in love with. Before they can marry, of course, the trapper is hoodwinked by a scheming con-man who takes his money, tells the girl he's dead, and carries her off to New York. There, he wastes his new fortune, putting his wife and child on the streets. Soon enough, the trapper comes to the city, various encounters ensue, and (after a return to the Northwest) the hero is saved from a sawmill blade by a curious and quick-thinking moose. Turns out the hero is the long lost son of a wealthy timber man, and a happy ending quickly follows.

Published in 1930, it seems clear that Gross parodies both woodcut novels such as Lynd Ward's God's Man (1929), and silent films, especially of the melodrama type. The hero is heroic (though also a figure of fun as he arrives in the city as a newcomer unused to big city ways); the villain is nasty in a comic way; the heroine is beautiful and resourceful, but still needs to be saved. Gross's drawings are pleasingly and effectively varied in style (though with a recognizably thirties style), and the book even has touching moments. And it's practically without words.

He Done Her Wrong deserves some academic attention, and not merely for its place in comics history, but the writing that has been done about it hasn't always done it justice: David A Berona's "Pictures Speak in Comics without Words" (in Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, eds, The Language of Comics: Word and Image [Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2001] 19-39, for example, describes the villain as having "spent all their money gambling" (25). But as my dad pointed out to me long ago, the machine that drives the villain and his family into poverty is not a gambling machine but as my dad described it, "a gum machine": a recalcitrant vending machine from which the villain cannot get any gum, no matter how many coins he puts into it. The point of the scene, it seems clear, is not the tragedy of a gambling addiction, but the obsession with a vending machine that takes your money. I point this out not so much to blame Berona, as to point out that the images in He Done Her Wrong do speak--but even sensitive modern readers can sometimes miss the jokes.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Time in Overdrive (Mark Schultz)

I just recently came across this old Kitchen Sink volume (1993; reprinting issues 9-12 of Mark Schultz' Xenozoic Tales, perhaps better known as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs). Having previously read Dinosaur Shaman (issues 5-8) but not Cadillacs and Dinosaurs itself (issues 1-4), I probably have no business blogging about it, but that's the way the fossil crumbles here in Village Grouchy.

I guess I'll start by simply noting that Jack Tenrec, the hero, begins the real action of this volume with a stirring cross country race between a rampaging "Mack" (some kind of ceratopsian, I guess, though my paleontology is weak), and Tenrec's trusty, (no-longer-) rusty . . . Hudson? That's right: the series may be known as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, but maybe only because "Hudsons and Dinosaurs" wouldn't have the same kind of ring. An old Caddy always has some class after all, but a Hudson is just a gas-guzzling old dinosaur.

But seriously, Schultz's storyline (apparently continued through only two further issues; I'll trust you all to be able to find a plot summary on Wikipedia, if you're interested in plot), involves a post-apocalyptic world, some 500 years in the future, in which mystical eco-mechanics like Tenrec find themselves pitted against the "evil" machinations (pun intended, I suppose) of progress-seeking archeologist-technophiles who dig up old tech and want to use it (you can't make this stuff up, or at least I can't). This is pre-Jurassic Park, of course, though the dinosaurs are nevertheless depicted as some kind of revenge-of-nature, with which Tenrec attempts to achieve some kind of balance: but all of this (and its green, eco-friendly overtones) is pretty much submerged backstory to a strangely odd mix of dinosaur attacks and dull political maneuvering. But the dinosaurs and pretty girls are pretty, and one can't help suspecting that it's that juxtaposition, more than anything else, that gave this series life.

Anyway, if it's pre-Jurassic Park, I can't help noting that it's post Love and Rockets, where Maggie the Mechanic had already encountered dinosaurs (and even worked in a garage) in some sort of weird alterno-future way back in 1982. Tracing textual influences isn't usually my favorite mode, but this one seems worth pointing out. Or maybe it's just my luck in having read Locas so recently.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Escapists

The description on the back of the dust jacket of this short graphic novel (published by Dark Horse in 2007) describes it as "An awesome heroic adventure, a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale," et cetera. Perhaps that should have been enough to keep me from buying it, but I'm a big fan of Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and so I didn't resist.

I'm tempted to merely summarize the plot, which goes something like this: geeky nerd buys rights to the character "The Escapist" (and, it seems, all the other related characters: Luna Moth, The Saboteur, and so on, although those details are not really addressed), gets his pals to draw and letter what he writes, gets into various jams trying to promote and publish the book, and eventually sells out and begins writing his own comics series. Given Brian K Vaughan's success in writing comics like Y: The Last Man, I'd hoped, frankly, for a more interesting story.

At a couple of places, the overlap between the nerdy teenagers' lives and the comic they produce is interestingly handled--though mostly it's a matter putting their dialogue into the word balloons of their characters. This serves, of course, to emphasize a kind of identification between character and reader/author that plays out in other ways in the book--which, perhaps unintentionally, reinforces comics as a kind of simplistic escapist fantasy. At the same time, the "new Escapist" comics that these kids produce is utterly boring to me (as I've said before, I'm just not much interested in superheroes: it may be related to why I hate evil). As such, however, it was hard to take seriously the idea that these kids had a new perspective to bring to the Escapist, or to any comics, which made it less successful as "an earnest defense of dreamers everywhere" (back cover text, again) for me, at least.

Still, there are a few worthwhile moments, not least of which is the setting in Cleveland, which is Vaughan's hometown, and some of the local details are used well. It's always nice to see the Terminal Tower in comics. And Chabon's Introduction is good: possibly the best part of the book.