Please follow Charles and I over to our new blog home, here:
...and enter our Panelist contest; winner gets a $50 gift certificate from AdDistro!
Please follow Charles and I over to our new blog home, here:
...and enter our Panelist contest; winner gets a $50 gift certificate from AdDistro!
As Craig reported four days back, Thought Balloonists will be going into hibernation this coming year so that he and I can take part in a new venture: a blog called The Panelists, to be hosted by the main page of The Comics Journal (www.tcj.com) and maintained by Derik Badman, Alex Boney, Isaac Cates, and Jared Gardner as well as us.
To say I'm excited about this move is a killer understatement! I'm looking forward to the expanded collaboration, the opportunity to post more regularly, and the mix of tastes and opinions that The Panelists will bring. In the meantime, I want to underscore what Craig has said: how glad we are to have worked together on TB, and how thankful to those who have read and commented on our work. If you're a loyal TB reader, we encourage you to make the hop over to The Panelists.
I'm damn lucky to work with Craig, a terrific writer and a good friend. We're gonna keep at it!
One more item of business before we go. Though this may seem like an odd way to close out, I want to blow the trumpets for something important on the near horizon, something that pertains to Craig's and my academic work and to the larger field of comics studies:
An encouraging sign of academia's growing interest in comics is the upsurge of related research within the Modern Language Association of America, or MLA, the leading professional association in the US for college- and university-level teachers/scholars of literature and language. Founded as long ago as 1883, the MLA sets standards and reflects trends in disciplines like ours, English studies (those of you who've ever had to do an academic paper with documentation in "MLA style" may know what I mean). These days comics research within the MLA is definitely accelerating.
Granted, comics studies have appeared only very infrequently in the Association's journal of record, the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, or PMLA. However, comics-related papers and, very occasionally, panels have been a growing part of MLA convention programming for some time. These activities have been ad hoc and temporary in nature--until now. Very recently, comics scholars in the MLA have joined together to launch the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, a body that promises to bring new focus and oomph to comics studies within the Association (and within literary studies more broadly).
The Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives was founded in 2009 on the initiative of Hillary Chute (now of the University of Chicago and author of the new Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics). Established by petition, and then launched with an initial organizational meeting at last year's MLA convention in Philadelphia, this discussion group will be offering panels for the first time ever this coming January, 2011, at the Annual Convention to be held in Los Angeles.
I'm proud to serve on the Group's executive committee, along with Isaac Cates (U of Vermont), who is this year's Chair, and Hillary Chute, Jonathan Gray (John Jay College), and Derek Parker Royal (Western Illinois U).
Admittedly, this Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives is but one fish in a very large pond: the MLA includes, as of last report, some eighty-seven major divisions and forty-nine smaller discussion groups, and its annual convention, which draws thousands of attendees, typically includes more than 700 or 800 events. But the group's presence within the MLA marks an important turning point--an encouraging next step after the MLA's publication of the book Teaching the Graphic Novel in 2009.
The 126th Annual Convention of the MLA will take place in Los Angeles this coming Jan. 6-9 (Thursday-Sunday) at the LA Convention Center and the nearby J. W. Marriott hotel. I'll be one of the, by my estimate, more than 2000 persons involved in putting on events there. Thankfully, the convention is not only local but is also no longer being held in the days between Christmas and New Year's (from now on, it will be held during the first weekend after the first Tuesday in January, I think).
Following are the three panels being sponsored or co-sponsored by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives:
312. Comics and Conflict in the Middle East
Friday, Jan. 7, 1:45-3:00 p.m., Room 407, LA Convention Center
Presiding: Isaac Cates
1. "Graphic Narratives and the Suffering of Palestinians," Aryn Bartley, Michigan State Univ.
2. "When We Were Kings: Representing Regime Change in Vaughan and Henrichon's Pride of Baghdad," Jonathan Gray
3. "A Female Prophet? Matriarchal Authority in Marjane Satrapi," Rachel V. Trousdale, Agnes Scott Coll.
552. Drawing Women's Lives
Saturday, Jan. 8, 1:45-3:00 p.m., Platinum Salon J, J. W. Marriott hotel
Presiding: Hillary Chute
1. "'My Independent Jewish Monster Temperament': The Serial Selves of Aline Kominsky-Crumb," Tahneer Oksman, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York
2. "The Embedded Looker: Charting Narration in Graphic Memoir," Robyn R. Warhol, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
3. "Arranging the Narration of Women's Lives in Marjane Satrapi's Broderies/Embroideries," Stacey Weber-Feve, Iowa State Univ.
386. Graphic Aging
Friday, Jan. 7, 5:15-6:30 p.m., 407, LA Convention Center
Co-sponsored by the Discussion Group on Age Studies and the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives
Presiding: Charles Hatfield, CSU Northridge (that's me)
1. "'Old Father, Old Artificer': Time, Memory, and Aging in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," Michelle Ann Abate, Hollins Univ.
2. "Comics and the Problem of the Bildungsroman: Charles Burns's Black Hole," Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia
3. "Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth: Father as Fallen Superhero," John David Schwetman, Univ. of Minnesota, Duluth
Respondent: Leni Marshall, Univ. of Wisconsin, Menomonie
I'm pleased to be collaborating with Leni Marshall of the Age Studies group on this last one, which I believe will help establish a needed bridge between age studies and comics.
I hasten to add that these are by no means the only papers and panels of potential interest to comics scholars, nor the only things of interest to me. Besides promising offerings in so many areas--including, for me, children's literature, film, image-text relationships, and professional issues--the convention program offers scads of other programming, some 821 official events in all. Among these are, as usual, numerous telltale acknowledgments of current trends: a panel on Avatar, for example, and several panels focusing on social networking, and some attention to e-reading as well. There are also two other comics-themed panels, which are considered "special sessions," that is, ones not sponsored by divisions or discussion groups:
175. Narrative Imag(in)ing and the Comics of the Hernandez Brothers
Friday, Jan. 7, 8:30-9:45 a.m., Olympic III, J. W. Marriott
Presiding: Jennifer Glaser, Univ. of Cincinnati
1. "Serialization, Character Dynamics, and Narrative in Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets," Christopher Gonzalez, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
2. "Strategizing Popular Genre in the Works of the Hernandez Brothers," Derek Parker Royal
3. "Emotion, Cognition, and Race in Los Bros Hernandez," Frederick Luis Aldama, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
Respondent: Charles Hatfield
382. Graphic Novels and Cultural Memory
Friday, Jan. 7, 5:15-6:30 p.m., Diamond Salon 6, J. W. Marriott
Presiding: Astrid Boeger, Hamburg Univ.
1. "Hybrid Narratives, Hybrid Identities: Line Hoven's Graphic Memoir Liebe schaut weg (2007)," Stefan Hoeppner, Univ. of Freiburg
2. "Beyond Genre: Autobiography, Cultural Memory, and History in Comics," Lan Dong, Univ. of Illinois, Springfield
3. "Comics as a Counterdiscourse of Cultural Memory," Dirk Vanderbeke, Friedrich-Schiller-Universitèt
Unfortunately, this second one, "Graphic Novels and Cultural Memory," which I would love to attend, is scheduled opposite the panel on "Graphic Aging." As I've said, the MLA convention is vast, so much so that the Association does not necessarily keep track of events on shared or similar subject matter that might conflict!
In addition, comics will be prominently featured in a session linked to this year's Presidential Forum topic, "Lives and Archives: Finding, Framing, and Circulating Narrated Lives Now":
505. Lives and Archives in Graphic and Digital Modes
Saturday, Jan. 8, 12:00 noon-1:15 p.m., Platinum Salon C, J. W. Marriott
Presiding: Julia Watson, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
1. "Comics Form and Narrating Lives," Hillary Chute
2. "Automedial Ghosts," Brian Rotman, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
3. "What Is Worth Saving? The Salvage Work of Comics," Theresa Tensuan, Haverford Coll.
I note that this panel includes not only Hillary Chute but also a scholar whom I had the pleasure of seeing present at the Ohio State University's recent Festival of Cartoon Art, Theresa Tensuan, who has published notable articles in Modern Fiction Studies and Biography and has a book forthcoming from the UP of Mississippi. The linkage of the Presidential Forum and comics studies is something quite new (I note, BTW, that Marianne Hirsch, former editor of PMLA, whose many writings include work on Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi, will also be participating in a Presidential Forum session).
Besides the above events, a search of the convention program reveals several other papers that focus, or appear to focus, on comics or cartooning. These can be found within sessions on various topics not limited to comics. I'll list these papers here, by session and paper title, without listing all the other papers involved in these sessions:
13. French Noir: Film, BD (Bande Dessinée), Roman
Thursday, Jan. 6, 12:00 noon-1:15 p.m., 402B, LA Convention Center
2. "Revisiting the French Noir: The Birth of Adele Blanc-Sec," Anouk Alquier, Smith Coll.
33. Arab Literature and Commitment
Thursday, Jan. 6, 12:00 noon-1:15 p.m., 406B, LA Convention Center
2. "Muslim Women in Naif Al-Mutawa's Comic Book The 99," Shirin E. Edwin, Sam Houston State Univ.
63. The Globalization of the Holocaust
Thursday, Jan. 6, 1:45-3:00 p.m., Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott
1. "The Holocaust in Iranian Media: The Hamshahri Cartoon Contest and Zero Degree Turn," Justin Neuman, Yale Univ.
229. Remembering Madrid's March 11th: Terrorism, Immigration, and Identity in Contemporary Spain
Friday, Jan. 7, 10:15-11:30 a.m., 304A, LA Convention Center
3. "March 11th and the Graphic Novel," Kyra A. Kietrys
431. Textual Scholarship and New Media
Saturday, Jan. 8, 8:30-9:45 a.m., Diamond Salon 8, J. W. Marriott
1. "Comic Book Markup Language: An Introduction and Rationale," John A. Walsh, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
442. Postcolonial Diasporas
Saturday, Jan. 8, 8:30-9:45 a.m., 309, LA Convention Center
1. "South Asian-American Comics and Postcolonial Diasporic Identity," Uppinder Mehan, Univ. of Houston, Victoria
466. Teaching Asian American Literatures
Saturday, Jan. 8, 10:15-11:30 a.m., Platinum Salon H, J. W. Marriott
1. "Teaching Asian American Graphic Narratives in a 'Post-Race' Era," Caroline Kyungah Hong, Queens Coll., City Univ. of New York
Saturday, Jan. 8, 5:15-6:30 p.m., Atrium I, J. W. Marriott
2. "Reading in Pictures: Re-visioning Autism and Literature through Keiko Tobe's With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child," Christofer Craig Foss, Univ. of Mary Washington
Finally, here is a roundtable session in which comics will be discussed:
788. Teaching Life Writing Now
Sunday, Jan. 9, 1:45-3:00 p.m., Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the Teaching of Literature and the Division on Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing
Presiding: Leonard Cassuto, Fordham Univ., Lincoln Center
Speakers: David M. Ball, Dickinson Coll.; Sarah J. Heidt, Kenyon Coll.; Susannah B. Mintz, Skidmore Coll.; Elizabeth Stone, Fordham Univ., Lincoln Center; Julia Watson, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
From the program: "This session will focus on the teaching of life writing, with particular emphasis on the issues raised by life writing today. Heidt will focus on teaching gender and life writing; Watson will address the teaching of memoir in the light of the questionable truth claims that have lately attached to it; Mintz will consider disability and life writing; Stone will focus on immigrant and ethnic life writing; and Ball will discuss the teaching of life writing in the form of the graphic novel."
David Ball, note, is the co-editor of the recent, and excellent, The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (Mississippi, 2010).
In closing, I should add the caveat that I might have missed some comics-related work in the program, which after all is very long and dense. More details about the convention, including registration information, can be found at http://www.mla.org/convention.
I'm delighted to see this unprecedented level of comics research activity at the MLA, and I hope and expect that the upsurge will continue! Mark your calendars: MLA 2012 will be in Seattle, and 2013 in Boston. Comics will definitely be on the program from now on!
As some of you may already know, Thought Balloonists is going into hibernation in 2011 so that Charles and I can contribute to a new blog called The Panelists. This new site will launch in early January, and contributors besides Charles and I will include Madinkbeard's Derik Badman, Guttergeeksters Alex Boney and Jared Gardner, and Satisfactory Comics' Isaac Cates. We'll be affiliated with the main webpage of The Comics Journal, so keep an eye on TCJ.com for our debut if you're so inclined.
Why a new blog? Primarily, Charles and I are excited about the idea of collaborating with ferociously smart critics like Derik, Alex, Jared and Isaac. Personally, though, I'm also ready for a new direction in my online writing. Over time, my TB posts became longer and less frequent, which is (surprise!) not the best way to build a steady audience for a blog. In 2011, I plan to retool my writing to make my Panelist blog posts shorter, snappier and at least bi-weekly--hopefully without abandoning the idiosyncratic, intellectual content I've tried to present here at Thought Balloonists. And the other Panelists will be gettin' my back; together, we'll be putting up new posts all the time.
Thanks to everyone who's read our work and commented on our posts here, and thanks especially to Charles for inviting me to join him on TB. As I recall, it was October 2007, at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC, while we were in line to have books signed by Pat Oliphant, that Charles suggested we blog together. At that time, I was in the midst of a debilitating writer's block, and I suspect Charles hatched TB to jolt me out of said sorry state. CH, it worked. These last three years have been a joy, and I can't wait to continue our Eddie Campbell project, and Panelize with the rest of the whole sick crew. The future's so bright, I've gotta wear ruby quartz shades...!
Happy holidays to all, and we'll be back soon. I'll post a link to The Panelists as soon as the domain is up and running.
Over at The Hooded Utiliarian this past week, hooded ones Noah Berlatsky, Robert Stanley Martin, Caroline (Caro) Small, Derik Badman, Ng Suat Tong, and Matthias Wivel have been engaged, along with me, in a spirited, not to say feisty, roundtable on my book Alternative Comics and the issues that it poses.
I thank Noah and the gang, and guests and commenters, for opening up this space to talk about my work--and for making me work so hard to consider, respond to, and joust with their various, by no means interchangeable, points of view! It's a dense discussion with a lot of byways and probably some misunderstandings en route, and some heated byplay in the comments section. All to the good.
Among the dividends, from my POV:
For me, a big personal dividend has been the opportunity to reflect seriously on the changes in my work and in the comics field that Alternative Comics either anticipates or fails to anticipate. This whole process has me seeing alternative comics and comics studies in a new light. Interestingly, this all ties in, I think, to Craig's and my contributions to the online journal Transatlantica's newly published issue on comics studies.
If you're interested in questions like the future prospects (?) for alternative comics, the formalistic tensions that may define comic art, the problematic reception of Gilbert Hernandez's work (dare I say that this roundtable is something for Hernandez scholars to bookmark?), the ways in which theories of self-representation may need to be inflected by gender, or the promise and pitfalls of writing academically about comics to a mixed audience--if you're interested in any of these things, this roundtable will have something to say to you, I bet.
Whenever I travel with my family to DeKalb, Illinois, where my in-laws live, I visit Charles Sigwart's Classic Books, and buy an obscure cartoon book.
Sigwart's appearance is striking. He's got wavy gray hair, a thick white beard, glasses with impossibly thick lenses, and a right hand that's missing a few fingertips. His left hand is missing altogether, replaced by a metal hook. I Googled Sigwart's name, and discovered that before his recent retirement, he was a professor of Computer Science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, the school where my mother-in-law used to teach. (I also found an interesting article about Sigwart and his wife Gretchen, both of whom were involved in Project Survival, an environmentally-themed event that was a dress rehearsal for the first Earth Day in 1970.) When I'm at Classic Books, however, Sigwart and I never talk about personal stuff; rather, Sigwart is always in motion, bouncing around the very small shop, talking with customers (including my kids and me) about the books we're interested in and the books he has for sale. He proudly points out that about one-third of his stock turns over every year.
Classic Books is tiny, a converted two-car garage with the left bay jammed with Sigwart's desk and cash register, and floor-to-floor shelves of history and fiction books. In the right bay, the books are grouped into cardboard sleeves lined up on metal shelving and labeled by topic. There's also a tall, disorganized pile of books in the center of the room. Sigwart knows his store well and easily finds what we're looking for; during our last visit, my daughter Mercer was hungry for Babysitter Club books, and Sigwart quickly unearthed about two dozen Club volumes, priced at 50 cents each. Mercer bought ten of them, and immediately asked me when our next trip to DeKalb would be. "Maybe Christmas," I said.
For sad reasons, our family's been making frequent trips to DeKalb recently, and we've been in Sigwart's shop three times in the last year. Here's an annotated list of the strange cartoon books I've bought during these visits.
12/22/09: Father-in-law an invalid due to advancing prostate cancer. Reg Manning's What Kinda Cactus Izzat? (First edition 1941--though mine is the thirty-ninth printing, from 1997).
This is a joyous compendium of facts about various species of Arizona cacti and plant life. Manning, an artist for many years for the Arizona Republic newspaper before his death in 1986, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, combines funny, informative prose with drawings in a vibrant, brushy, bigfoot style:
I love the "cut away" Saguaro diagram above; I love local color; I love cartoon glimpses into worlds I know nothing about (pace Russell Johnson). Izzat is published by "Reganson Cartoon Books," which reads like Manning's son publishing his father's work, although Manning's What is Arizona Really Like?, a guide to "every corner of the Grand Canyon state," appears to be out of print. Typing "Reg Manning" into eBay, however, yields a long list of postcards and other books--and I fear I may become an obsessive Manning collector.
7/7/10: Father-in-law unable to speak, in severe pain. Kari's Kakara Kirja (1959).
One of my odder discoveries at Sigwart's shop was a medium-sized box full of Finnish cartoon books. I know nothing about Finnish comics, so I picked a random book--Kari's Kakara Kirja (Kid Book)--that turned out to be a collection of nearly wordless gags featuring babies and children. Kari masterfully captures realistic vignettes and body language, as in this sequential study of a climbing toddler:
The caption accompanying these pictures, "Valtterin Ensimmainen Yritys," means something like "the first attempt" in English. According to this online biography, Kari Suomalainen (1920-1998) was a prominent Finnish cartoonist best known for his forty-year run as an editorial cartoonist for Finland's largest newspaper (Helsingen Sanomat) and for his outspoken conservatism. Kakara Kirja is completely apolitical, though I did find a newspaper clipping of a Kari editorial cartoon tucked inside the book:
Does "USA Pois Vietnamista" mean "USA out of Vietnam"? Who is President Maa Tarvitsee? What's the joke? I might have to read a modern history of Finland to figure all this out.
10/30/10: Father-in-law dead, family in De Kalb for memorial service. Ronald Searle's Zoodiac (1977).
This is a playful, slight book by a master caricaturist. Not counting front- and end-papers, Searle draws two silly pictures for each sign of the Zodiac, with the first a pen-ink-watercolor portrait of the sign's avatar (Pisces the fish, say) getting into solo trouble. I'm Taurus the Bull (my birthday is May 6th, shared with Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles and, sigh, Bob Seger), and Searle's first picture shows folks like me, Freud and Welles spoiling for a fight with a harmless butterfly:
The second picture depicts the sign interacting--often romantically and quixotically--with another creature: Taurus sits on a divan, aggressively leaning towards a female bull who is simultaneously pushing him away and shyly smiling, flattered by his attentions. My favorite illustrations, though, might hint at some playful discord in Searle's life. Searle dedicates Zoodiac to his "own personal Virgo," and his drawings represent Virgo as a snout-nosed neat-freak compulsively ironing the grass and cleaning the kitchen:
Note the cat and man covered in white sheets, moved and then forgotten by Virgo as decisively as the furniture. Is Searle's "own personal Virgo" his wife Monica, and is he the compliant stiff on the table? The last picture in Zoodiac is of Virgo sweeping up the artist's mess, which is perhaps a tribute to one of Monica's roles in the Searle household...?
I'm ashamed to say that I don't know much about Searle's career and art, and it's time for me to read his St. Trinian's books--naughty Catholic schoolgirls and Addamsesque humor sounds like a lively mix to me.
Sigwart's Classic Books is a balm that my younger self could never have understood. In my twenties, I somewhat delusionally defined myself as a punk-rock hardass with a visceral mistrust of plain-spoken, honestly expressed emotion: laughing was always preferable to crying, and the more dense and modernist the text, the better. Over the past 15 years or so, however, I've learned to appreciate more sentimental artists (Lynda Barry and Douglas Sirk, among others), and the birth of my children has decisively knocked me off my Brechtian pedestal. The world is a beautiful and horrible place, I feel the beauty and horror more than ever, and when the horror threatens to overwhelm me--when I think about the pain of a man slowly dying of prostate cancer--I need to escape into books, comics, culture. When we visited DeKalb in July, my father-in-law was so sick that he gave his Kindle to my son, which I almost couldn't bear: I saw that in giving up reading, he was giving up his life. But I'll keep visiting Classic Books, and other bookstores like it, until it's my own turn to die.
From What Kinda Cactus Izzat?
This one's only tangentially about comics. It's about living.
After a spirited fight against pancreatic cancer, my good friend and sometime college roommate Dionisio (Dio) Sanchez died last Monday. His family had been keeping vigil with him; he had been confined to bed for the week previous. He was forty-four, about my age. I loved the man, and I'll miss him terribly.
Michele and I were able to attend Dio's memorial and funeral this past weekend, up north in San Jose under looming gray skies, where we joined with his family and friends, very many friends, to celebrate a life well lived. It was a powerful experience, beautiful, sometimes difficult, and haunting: something I would not have missed for the world.
Dio was a dedicated friend, someone who understood that friendship isn't just something that happens to you; it's intentional, a way of being and relating. He practiced the art of friendship well and was large-hearted, optimistic, and full of humor. He was, as his wife Jeanette said in her eloquent eulogy, a seeker, a person with a keenly active, questing mind and undogmatic spiritual nature. He had a desire to connect to the big things, and an unquenchable curiosity.
Dio and Jeanette built a loving family of eccentric originality and courage, nonconformists all, and I was blessed to be able to visit them a few times since moving back to California in 2001. His children, Olivia, Gabe, Shannon, and Cassie, comported themselves with strength and humor at the memorial, playing a leading role in all events.
I'll quote here from a statement that Dio's family sent to me before the funeral:
A graduate of Mt. Pleasant High School, Dio also attended UC Santa Barbara for several years as a physics major and spent a lifetime studying science, literature, and practicing the craft of writing. He holds his AA in English and Technical Writing from De Anza College. Dio worked for the Santa Clara County Department of Social Services since 1991, most recently as a Supervisor. Both in his professional and personal life, Dio took great pleasure in mentoring his staff, peers, friends, and family.
Dio loved literature of all kinds, especially science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Ever a seeker, he left an extensive library of sacred texts ranging from The Bible to the Mahabarata, the Social Theory of Magic to the Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. Humor and laughter were rarely far away as Dio had a broad sense of humor. He truly leaves a legacy of love, laughter, and respect with his family, friends and co-workers. Though he will be greatly missed, his spirit and love continues to shine bright and fill those who knew him.
On a selfish note, Dio had something to do with my dedicated comics buying in the mid to late eighties. I had started reading and buying new comics again circa 1985, after about seven years away (I quit at about age twelve when Marvel and DC books were at 35 cents, then came back at age twenty when they were typically 75 cents; I bought no new comics between my last issues of Kamandi and the first of Eastman & Laird's TMNT). When I resumed buying comics regularly, I was about to return to UC Santa Barbara for my third year, and that year Dio was one of my roommates (along with our mutual friend Steve). During that year, Dio and I, and often our friend Benson, made weekly trips to downtown Santa Barbara to the (now long gone) Andromeda Bookshop, on the De La Guerra Plaza next to the old mission. Andromeda was a haven for SF and genre and comics buffs, in fact a place I regarded as a SF bookstore long before I came to regard it as a comics shop. Our trips there, most often on Fridays, we called "Andromeda runs." Those trips, and the sense of camaraderie they instilled, were a big part in my growing enthusiasm for comics circa 1985-86.
It was during 85-86 that we would tear through borrowed runs of comics like Cerebus, and get up to speed with what Alan Moore and others were doing. The memories of our frankly crappy student apartment and all the reading that went on there will stay with me always, attached to my enjoyment of those mid-80s comics. Sitting in a ratty armchair with dozens of issues of Cerebus on the right armrest (the in basket) and more on the left armrest (the out basket), listening to Hawkwind or Camel or some other such trippy music, making the weekly Andromeda run, and talking long into the night--this to me was the romance of a deferred adolescent rebellion, a time of self-formation, deep confusion, great hope, and delightful craziness.
Besides our love of comics, Dio and I shared an enthusiasm for other geek-culture genres including SF, fantasy, and art rock. Dio had a prog-rock radio show, called Willow Farm, on the campus radio station, KCSB, usually on the graveyard shift circa 2 to 6 a.m., and I sometimes went with him to the station and helped out, at one point even subbing for the show (I had gotten my FCC license, inspired by Dio).
Back when we first met, during our initial year of college at UCSB, Dio, for all his nerdy interests, had a better gift for sociability than I did, and I benefited from his friendliness. I recall fondly how a small klatsch of students, including Dio and me, used to gather round a rock outside one of the UCSB lecture halls and wait for our Science Fiction professor, the late and much-missed Frank McConnell, to get to class. I doubt that would have happened without Dio being there; he was constantly making new friends and introducing me to people.
I was blessed to be able to visit Dio and his family back in June, when they held a Wopila (a ceremony of thanksgiving and gift-giving) in their backyard. Dio, I know, was much depleted by his cancer and the treatments, but, honestly, it would have been hard to tell: other than his thinness, and a few spells of tiredness, he didn't seem like someone fighting for his life. But he was, with unquenchable fire and optimism and love of living. He gave me his worn copy of a Doc Savage novel at the Wopila, one of the very first novels he ever bought for himself, and I took it home and read it promptly:
We both knew that it wasn't a great book (I remember Dio's cautious comments about the book's datedness and racism), but I'll be damned if reading it didn't mean a lot to me. Doc Savage has meant something to me since I was a little kid. And over this past weekend I came to know, much more clearly than ever before, that reading heroic fantasies like these had a huge and lasting impact on Dio, fortifying his ideals and sense of ethics and encouraging in him that love of the untrammeled imagination that guided him in life. It was no accident that a big Spider-Man stand-up was placed outside the entrance to the memorial chapel. It was no accident that, inside, Jeanette placed comics, SF books, and volumes on spirituality, religion, and esoteric philosophy alongside Dio's own stories, scripts, and notes. Dio took the best ingredients of SF and fantasy as genres--both the visionary,forward-looking elements and touchingly old-fashioned ideas of heroism and honor--and shaped his life with them. Even his musical tastes, I now see, were extensions of those genres, bringing the iconography of fantasy and SF and Romanticism and paganism into sound.
One of the sad limitations of the academic study of Literature is that, at least until very recently, it has had so little to say about the kind of reading life that Dio led. The powerful exclusionary frame that has made "Literature" what it is, academically, has cut off a great many of the most passionate and committed readers, and is poorer as a result. To hell with the frame.
Burroughs, Howard, Heinlein: in these oft-criticized yet still academically under-studied writers, Dio found the rudiments of a heroic ideal that enabled him to shape the life lessons he had learned close to home, from his loving family, into a consciously articulated philosophy of life. To a very great extent, his life was a project of self-creation, one that used elements from bygone popular culture as well as elements culled from scripture, imaginative literature, and daily living. In my view, he dignified everything he liked, finding even in shopworn pulp the inspirations for a generous, passionate way of life. Remarkably, he was able to do all this, and to pursue a different path from that of his birth family, without alienating or losing close touch with any of them. He followed his own way, but honored his parents and siblings and their families. Their closeness was much in evidence this past weekend, and I was honored to stand among them.
I spoke to Dio by phone a few times these last few weeks, though the last two times he wasn't able to reply (it was just me gabbing into a speakerphone, to tell him he was in my thoughts). To think that such a spirit could be stilled at such an age is still a shock to me, even though I knew, intellectually, that his death was coming. We are never ready for the irrevocable change.
Dio has gone on, with great courage, to what he called the Great Mystery, leaving me behind, wondering.
Two weeks ago, the online academic journal Transatlantica posted my essay "Worlds within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, and North America Comics Discourse." (My essay is here; the others in the issue, all worth reading, are here.) I begin "Worlds Within Worlds" by charting the American reception to the English-language version of Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and in the process summarize Leonard Rifas' review of System in The Comics Journal #284 (July 2007).
I refer readers to the entire essay for both my summary of Rifas' review and my own position, but there is one error I'd like to correct here. Twice, I make reference to Rifas using the word "gibberish" to describe System and difficult academic prose (specifically, I write "that doesn't mean that the jargon is, to use Rifas' word, 'gibberish'" and "Rifas' dismissal of jargon as 'gibberish'"), both of which don't honor Rifas' original use of the word. Here's an e-mail from Leonard correcting my mistake:
I appreciated your article "Worlds within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, and North American Comics Discourse" in the new issue of Transatlantica except for those places in which my name came up as someone who supposedly "despises" academic language and regards Groensteen's The System of Comics as "gibberish."
I used the word "gibberish" in my review of The System of Comics only once, when I claimed that Groensteen's book was, appearances notwithstanding, NOT gibberish: "I attest that read three times slowly and in its full context, this ceases to be gibberish."
The idea that as a Grothian anti-academic I "despise" Groensteen's "lit-crit prose and jargon" doesn't capture the primary mood I experienced when reading his book, which was disappointment. The part of my review in which I address the question of style most directly comes near the end:
"The possibility finally occurred to me that Groensteen takes pleasure from writing in this style. By the end of the book, I had begun to imagine that in its original language, this text may even have an effervescent sparkle that disappears like the shine off a drying pebble when reduced to a literal retelling in English. If that seems overly generous, I do not care to know otherwise."
In the years since reviewing The System of Comics for The Comics Journal, my appreciation for Groensteen's achievement in that book has grown, though not enough to make me want to reread it.
I apologize to Leonard for getting his use of "gibberish" wrong. I'll leave it up to other readers to determine if I misrepresented the mood of his review--it still reads to me like a cry of frustration as much as an expression of disappointment--but I'm grateful for his input.
In "Worlds within Worlds," I argue that comics academics should write in an accessible, jargon-light style, and issues of terminology and accessibility continue to cause friction among critics and scholars. Last weekend, I attended Ohio State University's Festival of Cartoon Art, where I heard an entertaining, enlightening and jargon-heavy paper by Toni Pape (University of Montreal) titled "Knowing One's Limits" Metalepsis, Pseudo-liveness and Mediality in 'Sculoa di fumetto' (Rat-Man)." In the question-and-answer session following Pape's presentation, critic R.C. Harvey leaned into his microphone and asked Pape a very simple question: "Are you serious?" Isaac Cates captured the moment in his sketchbook:
Harvey then briefly complained about Pape's use of jargon--without, alas, saying anything about Pape's intelligent reading of the self-reflexivity of Leo Ortolani's Rat-Man comic. In my Transatlantica piece, I express hope that we can find a language for comics studies that is both academically rigorous and open to readers, fans and critics (like Harvey) outside the academy. Am I hoping in vain?
Please go read Isaac's reports on the OSU festival here.
Russell Johnson was one of America's most accomplished and least-known cartoonists. Born on December 10, 1893 in a farm outside the small prairie town of Gibson City, Illinois, Johnson displayed early drawing skill. In 1915, he moved to Chicago to take a job with the department store Montgomery Ward, where one of his duties was drawing cartoons for the company newsletter Star News. After a stint in the Army in World War I (where he drew for Afloat and Ashore, a Navy newspaper published in Mt. Pleasant, a base in Charleston, South Carolina), Johnson returned to Chicago and briefly studied with syndicated cartoonists Billy DeBeck (Barney Google) and Carl Ed (Harold Teen) at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1922, however, Johnson left Chicago to return to Gibson City to help his father, gentleman-farmer-turned-retailer Fred P. Johnson, run his hardware store. As Johnson wrote in 1968, "I got a temporary leave of absence from my job and came to Gibson City, Ill. And as I write this 45 years later, I am still here." In 1930, his father died, and Johnson managed the store until his retirement from retailing in 1963. He died on September 7, 1995, at the age of 101.
While working at the store, Johnson produced drawings for use as newspaper ads and window dressing. Johnson's aunt, a journalist, wrote a profile of the "cartooning hardwareman" for the trade magazine Hardware Retailing, and editor Rivers Peterson immediately asked Johnson to submit work to the magazine. His first submission appeared in 1925, and Johnson produced at least one cartoon a month for Retailing for 64 years. In October 1927, Johnson drew "It's a Sad Story, Mates," a strip about a hardware store owner and manager named Mr. Oswald (whose appearance and personality was modeled on Johnson's father) driven insane by the demands placed on him by charities, civic organizations, and high-pressure salesmen.
This cartoon proved so popular with readers that editor Peterson asked Johnson to make Oswald the star of a monthly strip, and Mr. Oswald became Hardware Retailing's most popular feature. In what remains the definitive account of Johnson's art and career, Dale Luciano, in Comics Journal #83 (August 1983), describes one symptom of Oswald's popularity: "Throughout most of Mr. Oswald's history, his adventures have appeared in Hardware Retailing in full-page form. In October 1962, the editors of the magazine modified the format so that three vertically aligned panels appear per page in a sequence of three successive pages, to accomodate the requests of advetisers who wanted to buy space adjacent to the cartoon."
Here's a sample of this broken-up layout, with a strip from November 1984:
Johnson retired from the strip in 1989, but Chicago-area artist and cartoonist Larry Day--himself from Gibson City, and Johnson's assistant on the strip for some years in the 1980s--continued the strip in the pages of Do-It-Yourself Retailing, Hardware Retailing's new incarnation, until 2009.
Besides Luciano's piece, there's very little writing about Mr. Oswald; notable is Rob Stolzer's interview with Johnson in Hogan's Alley #10 (2002). But Johnson deserves a lot more attention. He's a master ar creating both characters and a coherent, energetic world for his characters to inhabit. The central locale of Johnson's strip is the Oswald Hardware Company, located in the town of Dippy Center and populated by an eccentric supporting cast, including:
The dense stock clerk Herman Hammers, who was hired during the World War II labor shortage and, despite his ineptude, remained in the store to pester Mr. Oswald for the rest of Johnson's run;
Fuller O'Zone,a young-man-on-the-make who joined the cast in 1975 with the intent of taking over the store once Oswald retires; and
The cashier and bookkeeper Perlie Gates, Oswald's most competent and depandable employee. So valuable, in fact, that when she gets a boyfriend, Oswald sends O'Zone to woo her, just to prevent her from romantic entanglements that'll lead her to marriage and quitting her job.
There are plenty of other memorable characters. I'm particularly fond of Mrs. Oswald, whose bossy personality and ignorance of the hardware business makes her a perfect foil for her husband, and the unscrupulous Higgins Brothers, who run a hardware store across the street from Oswald's store. In Forty Years with Mister Oswald, a collection self-published in 1968, Johnson includes a drawing of a typical Chamber of Commerce meeting attended by Oswald, and all of Oswald's fellow Dippy Center merchants are labeled with punny names and plausible businesses. Most of these characters appear in strip throughout Johnson's 62-year tenure; Johnson was obviously--and passionately--interested in capturing the ways in which small-town inhabitants interact on a day-to-day basis. Also in Forty Years is a detailed map of Dippy Center, a map based on the layout of Gibson City. As an artist, Johnson created a consistent, naturalistic and complex fictional analogue to the people and architecture of the real world.
Johnson also courts (as well as subverts) realism through his densely detailed mise-en-scene. Take, for instance, this drawing, from a chapter heading in Forty Years:
What effects do such meticulously rendered backgrounds have on comics readers? On the one hand, the extreme detail functions as a signifier of realism: we see the buckets on the shelves and the hinges on the posterboards, and we believe that Johnson has captured the visual essence of a mid-century hardware store. (This belief is, of course, supported by knowing about Johnson's own decades-long career as a hardware retailer--who else is better qualified to draw what the business looks like?) I'd argue, however, that the realism of Mr. Oswald (and many other comic strips and books with detailed panels) does more than just get the surface details right; the artist's willful inclusion of heavy dollops of detail can direct the reader away from the characters and the narrative. The Harvey Kurtzman/Will Elder collaborations (as published in Mad, Trump, Help!, and the "Little Annie Fanny" tales in Playboy) are for me a quintessential example of "background noise." Elder draws Kurtzman's stories--usually based on some movie of TV show that Kurtzman is satirizing, as when Sherlock Schomes blunders his way through solving a case--but the world that Elder's characters inhabit is laced with "chicken fat," with labels and objects that merrily spin away from the narrative and provide us with another level of enjoyment, one not contingent on even the pretense of a story or parody of a story.
Johnson's comics aren't as antic as Elder's. Mr. Oswald's backgrounds are usually faithful depictions of the mise-en-scene of a hardware store, and these depictions set the stage for the narrative. But occasionally, Johnson slips in a detail that exhibits an offbeat sense of humor that deviates from the typical naturalism of the strip. In his Comics Journal article, Luciano calls these "dada jokes" with "a certain absurdist, non sequitorial quality," and lists several examples from Forty Years, including an advertising sign for washing machines that says "Buy a Chilly Noiz / Washes / And get a lot of New Wrinkles," and a garbage can for sale that reads "Hoot Receptacle, made in Dresden, China." Any reader of Mr. Oswald eventually comes up with his/her own list of favorite funny, surreal touches; personally, I love the boxes of "Vital Organs" piled near Oswald's desk, and the word "Phooey" as the name of a hardware catalog. In fact, Johnson consistently uses "Phooey" as the name of Oswald's wholesaler, and I'm tempted to read "Phooey" as Johnson's telling commentary on his beloved business. No matter how lovingly he drew the nuts and bolts in Oswald's store, and no matter how dutifully he managed his own store in Gibson City, Johnson occasionally wanted to say "Phooey" to all things hardware.
There are other elements of Mr. Oswald that speak of the difficulties of hardware retailing. Despite its Segar-like graphics and comedic approach, Mr. Oswald is an honest depiction of the plight of the small retailer in 20th-century America. Although running a store might seen to be a relatively independent profession, at least compared to working for a boss in a white collar job, Oswald is continually at the mercy of market forces beyond his control. Potential customers take their business to rival store Higgins and Higgins; employees make costly mistakes; sales representatives stick him with merchandise that dies on the shelf; and Oswald consequently experiences the "fear of falling" (to use Barbara Ehrenreich's phrase) out of the middle class and into poverty and bankruptcy. Johnson's drawing style--the density of detail, the static panel grids, the avoidance of close-ups--creates a visual claustrophobia that traps Oswald as much as his career does.
Sometimes Oswald's lack of control over his life and career takes on almost tragic dimensions. The May 1974 Mr. Oswald strip begins with Oswald chuckling over the advantages of inflation: "Everything we own will be worth more tomorrow than it is today!...Everybody's makin' more money than they ever did before--no one questions the price of anything--they won't know it won't be cheaper!! What a set-up!" At a business meeting, Oswald shares his theory with a colleague, and during a walk back to work the colleague tells Oswald a story about a German hardware retailer in the "pre-Hitler inflation period" who makes a forture buying nails wholesale and then selling them at inflated prices. Here's the conclusion.
Geoff Grogan, Fandancer. Self-Published, August 2010, $19.95
In the documentary Crumb (1994, and re-packaged last month in a fancy Criterion DVD edition), the eponymous bad-boy underground cartoonist reveals that he felt his first twinges of lust at the age of five, while looking at a picture of Bugs Bunny. Crumb carried this picture in his pocket for a long time, and when it wrinkled, he persuaded his mother to iron the creases out. Was it an image of Bugs in drag? (As film critic Hank Sartin argues, the Warner Brothers cartoons are shot through with a strongly transgressive queer sensibility.) Another question:
How do the comics we read, and the comics characters we love, shape our sexuality?
Click to enlarge images--though be aware that the images from Fandancer are cropped because they're too big for my scanner.
When I was a child, my favorite toy was my Captain Action doll, a 12-inch action figure manufactured by the Ideal Toy Company between 1966 and 1968. The best thing about Captain Action was his mutable identity; you could buy tiny costumes and masks and dress him up as other adventure characters, like Superman, Steve Canyon, Captain America and the Phantom. (Above is a faded picture of me, age five, opening my gifts on Christmas morning in 1968, the CA Aquaman costume on the table in front of me.) No doubt riding the wave of the Batman TV fad of the same period, the Captain Action toy became popular enough to spawn a few spinoffs, including a well-regarded but short-lived DC comic drawn by Wally Wood and Gil Kane. And more dolls: a villain named, appropriately enough, Dr. Evil, and a sidekick named Action Boy. I convinced my parents to buy these toys for me too.
I played with the Captain Action crew around the same time I began reading. I would spend hours using the dolls to act out variations on the tales I read in Superman and Spider-Man comic books. I didn't have a girl doll, however, and this was a problem. Most superhero comics included at least one female--a relatively powerless character like the Invisible Girl, or a damsel-in-distress saved by the hero--and the stories I invented in my private puppet theater felt unfinished without a girl puppet. So I asked my dad if he'd buy me a Barbie, and his response was an uneasy mix of a vehement "No!" and quieter, more disturbing concern. This was a few years before "William's Doll" and Free to Be...You and Me (1972), after all, and my dad was never interested in getting me to question the gender stereotypes of his generation. He thought the male-breadwinner/female-housewife paradigm worked fine.
But I was going to have to improvise without Barbie. I went into our bathroom, pulled a couple of sheets of Kleenex out of a box, and walked over to my shelf of dolls. I opened the snap at the back of Action Boy's neck, pulled his collar wide, and stuffed the Kleenex down the front of his shirt, shaping the paper to create two fake breasts. AB looked passable, in a pixie-haircut, Jean Seberg kind of way. I was now able to dream up more complete stories, where the hero defeated the villain and got the girl; invariably, these stories would end with Captain Action and Action Boy expressing their love with a kiss. One day, my dad walked by as one such clinch was in progress, and noticed Action Boy's new figure. A day later, my doll collection was moved out to the garage, stored in big cardboard suitcases previously used to carry the household sundries (potholders, lemon squeezers, etc.) my older brother sold door-to-door to raise money as a Cub Scout. I snuck out to the garage a few times to play with the Action Family, but a few weeks later the suitcases were gone.
How do the comics we read, and the comics characters we love, shape our sexuality?
Geoff Grogan's remarkable new Fandancer is (in the words of Grogan's website) "36 pages in full color, tabloid size 11" x 13.5", limited edition--500 copies, signed by the artist." And it is a virtuosic display of Grogan's chameleon-like mastery of color and collage. The book begins with two Kirbyesque superheroines battling as they fall from an exploding airplane lifted directly from Roy Lichtenstein's 1962 painting "Blam." The superheroines are reverse images of each other: one is blonde, the other brunette, and their costumes are red-and-blue inversions of each other. Grogan uses crayons to color his pictures, and the result is a gorgeous riot of cross-hatched texture poured into Kirby's thick outlines:
Is it my imagination, or are those breasts as (un)natural as Action Boy's? Anyway, before the women hit the ground, Grogan transitions to a prehistorical tableau of a cavewoman (the superheroine?) living off the land. This section is again colored in crayon, and the drawings--a perfect balance between representation and simplification of the human form--are the best cartooning Grogan's ever done. Grogan then changes his visual approach again, crafting collages out of pictures and word balloons cut from old comics, and concludes Fandancer by returning to the blonde superheroine, rendered in a style that mimics the tropes of superhero comics (right down to layouts winkingly borrowed from Fantastic Four 89 [August 1969]):
I have a theory about the narrative that links these disparate approaches to image-making--see below--but in some ways, story doesn't matter here: Fandancer is an oversized, mad, audacious visual spectacle, and you should get this book and stare at it until the reds scald your eyes.
That said, I do think Grogan both tells a story and addresses important issues in Fandancer. (This is the point in the review where I begin to sling spoilers.) The narrative spine is one you've seen before: Hero versus Villain! And although the hero is more powerful, the villain finds some insidious way to worm into and manipulate the hero's mind. With his illusions, Mastermind convinces Jean Grey that she's a dominatrix at the Hellfire Club; Marcus, "with a subtle boost from Immortus' machines," turns Ms. Marvel into a willing rape victim. (Did someone say something about sexuality?) Maybe the quintessential example of such a comic-book psychic assault is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "For the Man Who Has Everything" (Superman Annual #11, 1985), where the alien conqueror Mongul uses a plant to immobilize Superman with false images of a restored Krypton where Kal-El marries and has a loving family. How can the hero(ine) free himself/herself from these dreams? (How ironic is it that comic-book fans love these stories about the dangers of escapism?)
I see a similar mind-manipulation arc in Fandancer, albeit with a twist. In the beginning, we're not sure which battling superheroine is the "good guy" and which is the "bad guy," although the fact that they're doppelgangers hints at the kind of twisted relationship that the Flash shares with Professor Zoom. Zoom steals the Flash's power and appearance, but Grogan goes one step further than Zoom: Lichtenstein borrows the art for his "Blam" painting from art by Russ Heath in All-American Men of War #89 (January-February 1962), but Grogan steals the art back and inserts it into his comic book. It's all about image duplication, and it's all about making the women fight each other, with men out of sight.
The transition between sections one and two is odd: Grogan draws a spiral fade-out around the falling heroines, and then we see a full-page image of a fetus curled tightly in a womb, followed by three pages of a naked cavewoman staring at a reflection of her face in a pool of water, catching a fish, and cooking over a fire. She is autonomous, self-reliant, maybe a little narcissistic. She is joined, however, by a man who brings his own fish to eat, and who rapes her. I read these scenes as taking place in one of those illusory worlds that a villain manufactures to trick a hero: I consider the cavewoman and the blonde superheroine to be the same person, although Grogan's narrative is ambiguous and loose-limbed enough to accommodate multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, the rape-by-fireside takes a supernatural turn, as the man becomes a horned, goat-like exemplar of rapacious masculinity, a monster that sinks his claws into her stomach:
He extracts from her a shining force that represents many things: the cavewoman's pregnancy (connecting to the earlier image of a fetus), her autonomous strength, and even Adam's reclamation of his rib from Eve. And the next time she sees her face reflected in water, all she can see is the face of the goat god:
Abruptly, Grogan then revisits and revises, in the next twelve pages, some of the collage techniques that dominated his earlier Look Out Monsters. He layers his pages with diverse images of women (photos of Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis, woodcuts by Max Ernst, drawings of love-struck girls from Marvel and DC romance comics) and gives most of these images word and thought balloons from comic books, many from superhero stories featuring Dr. Fate (I recognize that pseudo-Egyptian Howard Sherman lettering) and Dr. Strange ("I am Eternity! Heed my message and remain silent!"). I'm still figuring out this whirling juxtaposition of female bodies and superhero rhetoric, but I think the point here is that much of the surface noise of our culture (including popular culture) constitutes a superstructure that conceals a harrowing misogyny at the core of western civilization. Since prehistory, men have held the rib and controlled the reflections. On a narrative level, the collages represent our heroine struggling to see sexist truth behind illusion, the dancer behind the fan. (The largest word on the back cover of Fandancer is "Mystique," as in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), as in the X-Men shapeshifter who specializes in masquerade, and whose blue face adorns Fandancer's front cover.) Further, Grogan asks his readers to probe beneath surfaces and consider:
How do the comics we read, and the comics characters we love, shape our sexuality?
The final act is a happy ending: Grogan combines chunky Kirby with collage aesthetic to chronicle the superheroine as she wakes up from the illusion and defeats the goat-villain. While they battle, his mask flies off, and he turns out to be just another dumpy guy in horns. On the final page, she reclaims a glowing ring that is her life force, her vagina, the round wound in her side inflicted by the goat-rapist:
In his emphasis on collage, in his exploration of the conscious and unconscious connections between gender and genre, and in his willingness to self-publish (self-publish!) expensive, colorful, resolutely experimental art books, Grogan is unique. Nobody else is making comics like these, and very few artists play with the puppets of our popular culture in order to explore vital, important ideas. (The only other creator that treats superheroes as philosophical avatars and ideological symptoms as smartly is Grant Morrison.) I hope Grogan continues to make his idiosyncratic, magnificent comics.
[A complimentary review copy of this book was provided by Grogan.]
Recently, I visited a comics shop where the clerk was an old friend. During our conversation, I mentioned that Jeff Parker had participated in the "Defective Comics" panel that Ben Towle and I organized for HeroesCon 2010, and that I enjoyed the trade collections of Parker's X-Men: First Class that I bought deeply discounted at Heroes. My friend smiled and said, "Y'know, I'm not all that crazy about Parker's comics. I like the idea of Jeff Parker, but the actual comics themselves? Meh." He explained that he considered it important that Marvel (and DC) publish a strong slate of all-ages monthly comics, to cultivate a new generation of young readers, but that Parker's all-ages books weren't the goods. "They're not as good as some people think they are," my friend said.
My first reaction was to disagree, if only because I found (and still find) X-Men: First Class a charming reboot of the original Angel-Marvel Girl-Beast-Cyclops-Iceman team. It's not perfect--the manga-esque art by Roger Cruz is wildly inconsistent--but Parker's writing wisely throws away the straitjacket continuity and annoying subplots that often make the 1960s X-Men comics a chore to read. Even as a kid reading the Lee/Kirby and Roy Thomas/Werner Roth runs in reprint, I couldn't bear the unrequited love between Marvel Girl/Jean Grey and Cyclops/Scott Summers. I skipped soapy thought balloons that began with phrases like "The way she looks at him" (#7) and "If only I dared hold her in my arms" (#24). In First Class, however, Parker replaces all this hand-wringing between Jean and Scott with humor and flirtation. In issue #2 of the first First series (2006), Beast and Angel hunt down the Lizard in the Florida Everglades while Iceman, Marvel Girl and Cyclops decamp at a beach house and have an impromptu vacation. Here's what happens as the latter three indulge in some summer fun, mutant-style (click the images below to enlarge):
Yup, you read it right: Professor X is Cyclops' psychic wingman here, and Parker wipes away all those years of mopey indecision with a single stupid joke. The entire First Class run feels like a playful romp, especially when Colleen Coover draws a back-up story in her best lush-brush Betty and Veronica style:
From "Missing Angel," by Parker and Coover, X-Men: First Class #14 (2007).
Still, though, there were Parker books I liked less than First Class. The Interman, an early graphic novel both written and drawn by Parker, felt like a standard espionage/superhero tale, and I was likewise lukewarm on the five or six issues of Agents of Atlas that I read. Though Atlas had some of Parker's trademark humor (I remember a scene where, one by one, all the members of Atlas besieged the team scientist with different impossible requests), I got tired of the prolonged fight scenes, and I'm less emotionally attached to the supporting cast of The Yellow Claw than to the original X-Men. Emotional attachments like this are rooted in nostalgia, though, and I don't trust nostalgia: would I like Parker's writing as much if he weren't revamping the superheroes of my childhood?
Enter Underground, a book I bought from Parker himself at Heroes Con. Drawn by Steve Lieber, and originally published as a five-issue Image mini-series in 2009, Underground is the story of two Park Rangers in Marion, Kentucky, Seth Ridge and Wesley Fischer (a woman), who are forced to escape from criminals by spelunking through a treacherous subterranean cave. There's more to the story besides this high-concept, though. Underground opens the morning after Wes and Seth slept together for the first time, so running parallel with their journey through Stillwater cave is an escalating seriousness in their relationship: they go from fooling around to trusting each other in order to survive. Parker also sets up a conflict between Marion entrepreneurs who want to turn Stillwater into a tourist attraction (a "show cave") and ecologically-minded locals, including Wes and Seth, who worry that development will damage the cave's fragile ecosystem. There's a lot in Underground, much of it entertaining, but the book isn't perfect. In fact, its pluses and minuses break down in an amazingly schematic way for me, with a bad beginning and ending sandwiching some the best work I've seen from Parker and Lieber. (As ever, proceed with caution: spoilers ahead.)
Let's talk about the bad bookends first. In the first three pages, the captions--free-floating, not boxed-in--are the words of an NPR reporter covering the cave story in Marion, while the images take us inside the cave and Wes's dreaming mind. In one panel, the conflict between ecology and the economically-depressed locals is dramatized by a gas-station owner standing near a stalagmite, saying "My fillin' station hasn't made money in years. We could use..." After dreaming of racing to stop working from detonating dynamite inside the cave, Wes then wakes up in bed with Seth, with the clock radio playing NPR. I wonder if Parker's use of the reporter as a "voice-of-God" narrator is necessary, since a later scene in a diner gives us the exposition we need in a more dramatic fashion. Anyway, Wes wakes up in her bed with Seth, goes into the bathroom, and becomes a character in a bad sitcom:
I dislike this sequence because Wes is a stronger (and more interesting) character throughout the rest of Underwater, and introducing her as a dopey flake seems a serious miscalculation. Also, the dialogue she says to the mirror is terrible: seriously, "woodsmanship," even as a joke? I understand why Parker wants to show her unease after her night with Seth, but the silent panel that begins the sequence (of Wes peeking around the bathroom door) is a more subtle, and less cheesy-Hollywood, way of indicating those nerves. I'm happy to report, though, that the rest of Underwater #1 efficiently sets up the "Die Hard in a cave" conceit of the mini-series, and portrays Wes as a caving pro rather than as an air-head.
I also found the conclusion to Underground problematic, although Parker and Lieber wrap up the adventure plot in a satisfying way; they're careful to keep the action on a human, naturalistic scale, and the characters behave like real people would. The denouement on the last three pages, however, reveals that Parker is more interested in the cave journey than in the big ideas his narrative brings up. The voice of the NPR reporter returns, indicating that two years have passed since Wes and Seth's adventure, and a lot has happened in the interim: Stillwater Cave is now a public attraction, under Wes's careful supervision, and Seth has resigned from the Rangers to open "a whitewater rafting tour company" (123). We don't see these changes at all; we don't see, for instance, Wes and the city fathers of Marion hash out their compromise, and that's too bad. Sure, this political negotiation might limit itself to talking heads and dialogue-heavy panels, but I think Parker and Lieber should devote some of their considerable talents to subjects inherently less spectacular than the hangings and shootings in the cave. Depicting more quotidian events would force Parker and Lieber out of genre, and into Harvey Pekar territory, and I'd like to see them take this artistic risk. Couldn't we have at least a few pages that show (rather than tell) us what Wes accomplishes in those two years?
The worst thing about Underground, though, is the last panel of the story. In the book's last scene, Wes and Seth hike up a mountain together, and chat about their secret plans to elope and move away from Marion. Then, on the final page, Parker and Lieber end on a half-splash bromide that comes perilously close to ruining Underground for me:
Ooh, look at the pretty scenery! Is it "all about the journey" if the journey is paved with cliches?
Though I didn't care for Wes's romantic hand-wringing in Underground's introduction, and the "journey" stuff at the conclusion, I very much liked the middle of the book. The cave scenes are tense and stylish; Parker and Lieber punch up the impact of their story by taking a few aesthetic chances. One neat trick is limiting the colors in the cave to a single hue, most often sepia, which gives Lieber's art the shimmer of a tinted silent film:
My favorite issue/chapter is the fourth, where Wes and Seth swim and almost drown in Stillwater Cave's underground lake. Colorist Ron Chan switches his deliberately narrow palette to variations on a metallic gray/blue--a better representation of Wes and Seth's wet surroundings--and the result is gorgeous, frigid, austere. As the protagonists wander deeper into the lake, their path narrows, the water level rises, and Seth panics, his terror manifesting itself through incessant talking. Then this page:
The word that describes this page is claustrophobic. By laying out several panels as vertical strips spanning the length of the page, Lieber tightens our focus on Wes and Seth's faces as they precariously bob on the surface of the lake. We see their fear in incessant close-ups. They continue to talk to each other, and the proliferation of word balloons clutters up the panels, restricting their movements and pushing them towards the water at the bottom of each picture. (The only exception is panel 5, where the word balloons are to the left of Wes's head, giving us an unimpeded view of the rocks blocking the passage.) In its visual evocation of being "out of clearance" and out of luck, this page is a real thrill, like many in the cave section of Underground. Most exciting here is Parker and Lieber's conscious play with the comics medium. I knew both men could tell an entertaining story within the parameters of mainstream comics, but in Underground, they leave behind superheroes and spies, and think more deeply about panels, layouts, coloring, and other aspects of aesthetic form. I'm glad to see it, although I suspect some fans of X-Men: First Class will miss the genre tropes and full-spectrum coloring.
In a prose epilogue to the book, Parker writes that he and Lieber "may even try something like this again if you want" (136), and what I really want is for Parker and Lieber to stretch themselves as artists. I want a sequel that improves on Underground by burning away the lingering sitcom cliches; I want more down-to-earth adventure comics with likeable characters and sensible, engaging plots. My idea of Jeff Parker is that he's a talented writer with the potential to become a master entertainer; my idea of Jeff Parker is less about his upcoming run on The Hulk, and more about future stories featuring Wes and Seth. I'll abandon my nostalgia if you'll abandon yours, Jeff.