From my vacation, scattered thoughts on...
The Complete Jack Survives, first 7 stories, by Jerry Moriarty. Buenaventura.
- Real life is obviously heavy shit for Jerry Moriarty. He draws only the most iconic images that can possibly found in day-to-day existence, giving his explorations of a 1950s Average Guy's days unmistakable gravitas. Jack Survives is mostly one-page strips, never more than six panels to a (hugely oversized) page, and long stretches of time pass between the individual frames. These comics are monolithic in more than just size -- they cast moments plucked from life lived as monolithic importances, Moriarty's use of paint glorifying them even further. This comic is a celebration of the familiar -- even the mundane or banal -- as seen in a new light, as seen through a true artist's visionary eyes.
- These pages read more slowly than any other comic I've encountered, except for maybe Frank Miller and Geof Darrow's Hard Boiled. But while the reason for that comic's slow rhythm was the immense, eye-stopping amount of information crammed into every panel, Moriarty's comics never stop you from moving through them. They just move you along at a rate seemingly calculated to mimic paint drying, or the quality of sunlight in a room changing. The painted artwork is incredibly textured, more tangible than any other black-and-white work I can think of. Moriarty's brushstrokes won't stop you cold like Darrow's detail occasionally does, but it's impossible to read an episode of Jack Survives without getting lost in them just the same. Everything about these comics seems designed to make you linger; the bizarre, completely unique uses of formal devices like thought balloons or panel-to-panel transitions, the almost comically huge speech bubbles, the layers of black brushwork slightly submerged beneath fields of white paint. You're supposed to be lingering on the everyday happenings Moriarty depicts, and as long and deeply as the artist does, if at all possible. These are comics designed to make you see the beauty, or at least the value, in a bad TV reception or a cloud that looks like a horse, and to do so Moriarty keeps you looking at these things for as long as he possibly can. Compare to Alex Ross, whose attempting to create fast-moving action stories with meticulously painted pages crammed with photorealistic detail seem like an absurdly flawed approach in comparison.
- After Gary Panter, Moriarty is the cartoonist whose approach most seems prefigurative of the Kramers Ergot/Picturebox aesthetic to me. Not only are these weirdo comics with a great amount of joy in exploring form, they're stories that run on their own immense conviction that what they're depicting is important, and manage to convince the reader that it is despite all appearances to the contrary. There's also a shared fascination with the construction/deconstruction of the comics page -- Moriarty' pages are showcases for painted-out brushstrokes that remain visible, blurred and defiantly unpolished details, word balloons full of erased speech. I'm not sure how many of our current no-fi comix-makers were exposed enough to Moriarty during their development to have really directly dialogued with his work, but the lineage is there beyond a doubt. Moriarty's inclusion in Kramers Ergot is an important act of linking comics creators of two generation together with the concerns and aesthetics they share.
Final Crisis #1-3; Final Crisis Sketchbook; DC Universe #0, by Grant Morrison and JG Jones. DC.
- Rereading this much-maligned megacrossover for the first time since it all ended, it's immediately apparent how little happens in these issues. It's almost all buildup -- we see "bad things happening across the DCU" again and again, but there isn't really anything else going on in the first three issues of this comic. There's a point where it almost gets old (toward the end of issue #2), but then there are a few good scenes where even more bad things happen, and by the time you're reading an issue #3 with nothing but MORE of them you realize Morrison has done the impossible and actually built up a threat that it seems not even the superheroes will be able to surmount. This experimental (for hero comics) approach to narrative is what ended up dooming the series to unpopularity, but looking at it as anything other than a fanboy it's pretty hard not to be impressed by the sheer power of Morrison's slow burn to apocalypse.
- JG Jones was rushing his art pretty bad by issue #3, but it completely works -- watching his lines grow less precise and more erratic, his areas of spotted black grow larger, his figures get a little less constructed, you can absolutely feel the dissolution of normality that Morrison's script is chronicling. I would have much rather seen a Jones-drawn book all the way through with vast dives in "quality" every issue as the Evil Gods got more and more powerful, a decay of beauty to parallel what was going on in the plot.
- Since Morrison's re-arrival at DC in '04, this is the only comic he's written that even comes close to the gloriously in-continuity sweep of his previous tenure's JLA. Maybe if the fans had liked this book we would have gotten more, but it's kind of cool to see Morrison just going for broke on the one big spotlight moment he was given, the moment where he actually got to write and plan the continuity instead of just reacting to it. There's such joy in the worldbuilding Final Crisis engages in, from the casual metafiction of the Multiversal Monitors' scenes to the kinetic intensity new concepts like the Super Young team are introduced with. We may still get new ideas and big changes from Morrison in his DC work -- after all, it's what he does. But there was an utter unhinged glee in the writer's summer of 2008, in Final Crisis and Batman RIP, that has been missing from his subsequent superhero comics. Those books were too searing, too big, too intense and individual for the average DC reader, and especially with the ascendancy of Geoff johns over the past year, Morrison has obviously become number 2 at the company. But going back and looking at this stuff, it's got a drive and passion that goes past anything else he's ever written and into territory that otherwise has only been Kirby's.
Bottomless Belly Button, part 1, by Dash Shaw. Fantagraphics.
- It's pretty hard to speak to the overall plot of this book, especially since part 1 leaves off just as the "things happening" part is getting in motion -- but this is an interesting comic. Shaw seems almost not to care about his characters, to see them as abstract vehicles for amusement more than like, his pals or something. (Not exclusively... you feel at times for Peter and for Jill, but the distance form the other characters is noticeable.) This is ostensibly a "comedy" comic, and Shaw is close to the Herriman headspace of treating his made-up people not as people at all but as "pixies" that exist for our amusement. This is a bit hyperbolic, but it's interesting to see a long, character-driven comic where the characters' plights or feelings are secondary to more aesthetic concerns. Shaw goes beyond the readers' comfort zones, but he does it in weird ways that you only notice when you realize how well the characters serve the story and how carefully wound-up all their actions are to play off of one another.
- Superhero comics have nothing on this book for fascination with the human form. Easily the choicest quote from Shaw's Comics Journal #300 conversation with David Mazzucchelli was this one: "I like feeling things in my body." Shaw likes drawing other people feeling things too, and a great amount of this book's plethora of formal innovations are there to describe to the reader the characters' sensual experiences of situations. Whether it's a loving render of a kid wiggling his loose tooth or a panel where the burn of a calf muscle after a long jog is the only subject, Shaw writes about the body functions and sensation we never see in comics, discovering along the way that the medium hasn't got any way to show these things yet, and innovating right and left to depict them in his drawings.
- This comic is really funny. Shaw's not a gag cartoonist, though, and his way of making you laugh is worth talking about; rather than just writing a punchline or capturing that perfect facial expression, he uses formal techniques. The extreme awkwardness of a family dinner gone to pot is all tiny, cramped panels full of word balloons and hunched figures and sound effects. Peter's forays into romance aren't shown in painful flashbacks, but in their detritus: "Did you really drive to my house, sit there for an hour, kick over the snowman in the front lawn and drive away?" demands an ex-girlfriend's letter, hand-written on a sheet of notebook paper. It's hilarious, just not in a way we've seen before in comics -- or maybe at all.
- Probably the biggest and best innovation to be found in part 1 of this book is Shaw's labeling of things too abstract to be drawn clearly with simple lettered captions. (Wafting lines are labeled "steam"; a cluttered block of abstract patterns is "LOUD MUSIC".) A lot of the criticism of Shaw is directed at his "simplistic", "crude" drawing, but if you're going to be inserting these kinds of inherently metafictional reader-helpers into your comic, some form of cartooning is necessary, because it keeps the reader constantly suspending their disbelief rather than getting popped out of a true-to-life visual world every time we're told that "Sunlight makes dust in air visible" by text incorporated into the pictures themselves. And as long as he's cartooning, it's admirable that Shaw just goes for broke, simplifying his iconographic characters down into ciphers that remind some people of the utter primality in children's art. Maybe that isn't what a lot of folks want from their comics but hell, that's great cartooning. That's taking something this medium offers you and running it to the finish line, so if people don't like it they better take it up with comics, and the possibilities they offer artists intelligent enough to use them.