Tuesday, April 27, 2010
"There were some books that would be like the history of comics, and you’d see a lone, little tiny strip of Buck Rogers, for example. And it was almost like looking at the toe bone of a dinosaur. You’d build this entire imaginary beast out of this one little fragment."
That's Charles Burns on a a part of being a comics reader that really got his imagination going as a kid. I can't speak for anyone else, but for me this is what comics are all about. You get a first, addictive hit of Eisner, or Clowes, or the X-Men universe, or whatever, and it suggests so much more. The encounter with something so unique, so novel and other, is enough to bring you down the path, through that creator's work or that comic's backstory and into the world of this wonderful medium. That experience of first contact with uncharted imaginative realms is dizzying, transcendent: something a lot of people read comics because of. A dragon to chase. Sometimes you get lucky and you find it again, stumbling upon a '70s Heavy Metal in a back-issue dig or deciding to take a chance on the collected Krazy Kat. Sometimes you just read every issue of Hulk that comes out for the rest of your life and hope.
The Burns quote is important for a reason besides just verbalizing a truism of comics reading: it also reveals the best kind of book, penny for pound, to find new visions in. Comics histories are difficult -- they're never comprehensive, go out of date almost immediately, are almost always a chore to read, and typically center on either known quantities (Kirby, Kurtzman, Schulz, the stuff you already know back and forward if you're reading a history of the medium) or give too much space to anachronistic material (Neal Adams, Frank Frazetta, that whole bag). There's always something in them, though, however hard it might be to find it.
A dire prediction: as comics get more entrenched in academia it'll only get harder to come across histories that do any real digging, and once the McCay-Crumb-Ware canon is roundly agreed upon and in place (sooner every day), the thrill of discovery will seep from comics histories like ink from a leaky pen. Indeed, I find that the big medium-wide survey books get better the further back in time you go (has anything come out in the past quarter-century to equal the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics?), so let's go back in time 38 years and look at something nice.
Graphis: The International Journal of Visual Communication #159 (1972). The Graphis Press.
While this issue of the art/design periodical Graphis isn't the first attempt at a survey of comics' aesthetic history (Les Daniels, a contributor to the issue, got there before, for example), it's certainly an early one, predating the first efforts of Maurice Horn and Ron Goulart as well as Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes. 1972: the undergrounds' first wave was still happening (though waning), and the Silver Age superhero revival was just beginning to die off. Those two movements, linchpins of most every serious historical work to have emerged since the 1980s, were relative novelties, not hallowed ground. The history of comics in '72 was the "real" Golden Ages of newspaper strips in the 1900s and '30s; the blunt energy of the first superhero boom; EC's tale of triumph and defeat; and only then, the tantalizing bits of newness that had emerged over the past decade from the pens of Kirby, Crumb, and overseas talents like Pratt and Giraud (still more famous under that name than as Moebius). Comics in 1972 were like crude oil: unfiltered, raw, and messy, hardly suited for the kind of grand hardcover exegeses we get these days. But somebody at Graphis was paying attention, and decided that the several decades of the form that had passed at that point were worthy of a spotlight. So came #159, subtitled "The Art of the Comic Strip Special Issue".
What the public got from the Graphis Press in 1972 was 80 pages of appropriately scholarly discussion, printed in English, French, and German, contributed to by a nice mix of European and American writers. The appropriate intellectual bases are covered... there's a look at comics prehistory that features hieroglyphics, tapestries, and Rodolphe Topffer; a conscientious survey of narrative technique, with everything from Prince Valiant to Golgo 13; sections on Little Nemo and Jules Feiffer; the patchy-but-fascinating "Echoes of Modern Art in the Comic Strip" (Lieutenant Blueberry and Toulouse Lautrec: yes! Carmine Infantino and "the ground-level perspectives of pre-1914 fashion drawings": not so much!); "Comics Variations", which examines undergrounds and sex comics from both sides of the Atlantic; and even a fast-paced flip through the best of superheroes, penned by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin.
It's a nice read -- stimulating but not too heady, entertaining material that teaches you something -- however, nothing that stands tall in the post-Comics Journal critical landscape. What really endears Graphis #159 to the modern eye is the art it reproduces. The issue proceeds in the style of an exhibition catalogue, with panel sequences and occasionally whole pages referred to as numbered figures, small peeks getting larger and more colorful as the sections race toward a gallery of full-page Little Nemo excerpts. The quality of the material chosen is an undeniable testament to the pre-Raw medium's aesthetic mastery (still, of course, in question in 1972, though less so in Europe). But in its fascinating mix of little-seen pieces from now-immortal artists and eye-popping cross-sections of devastatingly beautiful unknowns, the issue is more than just a case made for the comics: it's a look at how deeply the well extends beyond even the Golden Age of Reprints, and also a bigger helping of those dinosaur toes Burns mentioned than can be found just about anywhere else.
These are probably the crown jewels: three glorious panels by Alain Saint-Ogan, a French master who preceded Herge by a couple of years and was named honorary president of the very first Angouleme festival. They showcase an artist with chops that measure up to anyone's: an achingly beautiful economy of line, an expressive, almost McCay-style bounciness, compositions that use the comic book panel as a canvas for painterly journeys into fully-realized worlds, and a magnificent cartooning style that looks like George McManus doing his best Walt Disney impression, mixing the elgance of Art Nouveau with the thick, affecting minimalism of early animation. These are the panels I think of when I read that Burns quote -- there are a few more on the Lambiek site -- who knows what other wonders he executed? Saint-Ogan has, by my research, completely escaped English translation thus far.
I've written a little bit about the top panel before, but in a world where Hugo Pratt's masterpiece Corto Maltese has been forbiddingly out of print for decades, any excuse will do. The bottom panel, while not possessed of the same mad daring, is a white-knuckle look at the savagery with which Pratt inked; the blacks look like they were drawn with a squeegee. Together these panels give a view into the utter chaos from which Pratt pulled his impossibly sharp, crisp drawings and compositions. They're fascinating in themselves as single images, and the comics they suggest are mind-boggling.
Moving into full-page reproductions, here's a blast from Touis and Frydman's "Sergent Laterreur". The colors and audacious lettering choices point to a more Pop, considered version of the early, more psychedelic undergrounds, but the straightforward presentation of it all recalls early newspaper strips -- Frank King's fixed-camera, documentary framing, maybe, coupled with an overload of Lyonel Feininger's madcap expressionism. There's been a French-language reprint of this fairly recently, but as this review points out, the comics are essentially untranslatable, text-graphics heavy as they are. What Graphis provides is only a window onto beautiful artwork that will probably be forever denied to non-French speakers.
Another French delicacy is the work of Robert Gigi, whose "Agar et Zarra" looks like some dream fusion of Guido Crepax and Winsor McCay, rocketed into the future and drenched in Technicolor. Whoever picked out this excerpt had a particularly sharp eye -- through all the riveting close-ups and psychedelic color, the illusion of a Little Nemo-style stage for the dreamlike action to play out on is effortlessly upheld. This sequence rivals Kirby's best stuff for use of abstract elements to convey motion: look at how forcefully the background dots drag the butterfly net down in panel 3. There's just so much in these five frames, so tastefully considered, so beautifully drawn. Gigi also seems to have no work translated, and scant biography for the interested internet searcher. One can only hope that one day we'll get more.
Amidst the alien splendor of the French excerpts, certain of the superhero material takes on an unexpected cast. At top, the best case I've seen for the total uniqueness of Gil Kane's storytelling approach, as well as a virtuosic use of the limited Silver Age color palette. Below it, witness refinement and primitivism doing battle in Lou Fine's masterful tweaking of the nine-panel grid, as well as a strengthened case for garish four-color printing when it's done well. There's a surrealistic aspect to the Fine page, like it's unmoored from any semblance of reality, and the graceful exhilaration of flight combined with the harsh abstract backgrounds are strangely redolent of Krazy Kat's desert-dusted majesty.
Finally, a message from a screaming future that never came to pass: Jodelle, by Guy Peellaert, who was seduced away from comics by rock and roll, moving quickly from French BD periodicals to David Bowie album covers with only a few backward glances. This is the other side of Crepax's coin in the world of exquisite '60s Euro-smut comics -- blown-out, overstated, drowned in garish/gorgeous color, but with a choreographed, sinuous line and ease of composition -- a cartooning -- that recalls the very best of Crumb. Modern equivalents are tough to point out. This is really a fully-formed style of comics that no one followed, but given Peellaert's apparent popularity in Japan, a weird connection to Yuichi Yokoyama's detached cleanness seems feasible, though admittedly farfetched. Tim Hensley, with his beautifully simplified figures and wide planes of empty, brightly colored space, might be as close as American comics get.
Such guesswork, such flailing for relatability, of course, is the utter joy of finding an object like this magazine -- it is full of the paths that were once taken, or at least there to be taken, but are now inaccessible and overgrown. There is a fascination in seeing the way the past once pointed to the future, and seeing what has been left behind when that future begins. In Graphis #159 it approaches pricelessness.