Thursday, June 24, 2010
Comix Immortals 2morro
I've probably been thinking about these images more than any others lately. By Michael DeForge, from the first issue of his excellent series Lose; bright new work from a bright new voice that bears plenty of examining. I've already said a good bit on Lose, though, and for now I'd like to pick at a more general scab that this sequence brings up for me.
It can be pretty interesting to see comics artists draw other people's characters. Think of everything from Art Spiegelman's Dick Tracyisms to Darwyn Cooke's Spirit reconstructions to, I don't know, Jack Kirby drawing the Demon to look like Hal Foster's Prince Valiant in that one episode where he has a goose-skin stretched over his head. I mention those three for the same reason I spotlight the DeForge panel. They're not just swipes or derivations, like art by the next hack to take over Frank Miller's Batman is -- this kind of "covering" gets good when it openly displays an artist's attempt to work through, or maybe work into, the lineage of their own inspiration. To understand how and why their influences put the lines down where they did. To discover a new mode of creating. To be free of their own individuality. To understand the medium a little better. That's the reason you draw like someone else, why you choose to outline forms in another artist's shorthand. When they're done well (Steranko's Captain America, McCarthy's Spider-Man, DeForge's Lose), comics cover versions display artists forming their own cosmologies out of ink and newsprint. At best, like in the panel above, what you get is a very personal look at the medium's aesthetic history -- the century-plus of circumstances that led to a single artist's formation.
I find it interesting to scrutinize the segments of DNA that DeForge chooses to spread out on the page for us. Here are the mainstays of comics, creations of artists that anybody worth reading has absorbed. Kirby, Gould, Outcault, Herriman, Tezuka, and Steinberg are all here holding it down, just as they do in countless masterpieces. There are also more personal references that point to the specifics of DeForge's comics: shout-outs to Archie, Hanna Barbera animation, Otto Messmer, Floyd Gottfredson, Hagar the Horrible. What I'm really struck by, though, are two inclusions that mark DeForge as a young cartoonist with a solidly modern view into "comics history". Included in this panorama of his jumping-off points as an artist are Gary Panter's Jimbo (way over on the right), and Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/John Totleben's Swamp Thing. These aren't casual throw-ins by any means, they're important references to where DeForge is coming from. A new generation of comics-makers is taking the reins of the medium, and they were largely born after Raw (on the Panter, art comics hand) and Dark Knight and Watchmen (on the Moore, heroey side of things) were already history -- just as much a part of that "past masters" table as the Yellow Kid.
I think the next five to ten years are going to be a pretty interesting time. Just as the guard changed in the '40s for Eisner and Kirby, in the '60s for Crumb and Steranko, and in the '80s for Moore and Panter, it seems to me that we're living in the beginning of another turn of the page. Heaven knows what the current post-Kramers Ergot, post-Grant Morrison generation will have brought to the medium by the time another one steps up to be counted, but maybe we can find some indication of where things are going by looking at some more of the characters that seem likely to reach iconic status over the next chapter of comics' narrative. Whose work is soon to pass from life into history? What characters will tomorrow's stars cut their finer teeth by copying? Anyone's guess; here are a few of mine.
If anyone on this list is already there, it's this guy. Chris Ware is certainly the defining cartoonist of the 2000s, and his hunched, breeches-wearing sap is the star of his defining book. Jimmy Corrigan is an iconic visual image drawn in an unmistakable style, but his character traits say as much about Ware and his influence as his appearance. Awkward, sensitive, maladroit, antisocial, but painfully earnest and aware of his flaws, Jimmy is shorthand for an entire mini-genre of comics. He'd be immortal on his look or his character -- combine both, and it's all but a certainty that we'll have Corrigan parody/homages by the time the 2020s roll around. Just call him the "new Nancy".
Another iconic visual, and created by perhaps the most broadly successful writer ever to have worked in comics. Sandman, like Jimmy Corrigan, is the symbol of so much: the post-Watchmen "dark intelligent" approach to hero comics, the '90s in all their commercial unpredictability, and the writing-focused trench Neil Gaiman cut through the mainstream that, like it or not, still runs deep today. Who knows whether Vertigo would exist at all without this guy -- Sandman is an indelible symbol of the kind of comics where the words in the balloons are the most important thing on the page. Moreover, Gaiman's penetration of the larger mainstream culture and his mass-appealing public image, which has so much in common with his character, have put Morpheus in a lot of brains that live outside the comics bubble. Whether or not Gaiman will be a major influence on the next generation of cartooning talent, his most famous creation will always evoke a certain, very popular brand of comics better than any other character.
Huh boy, I know. Believe it or not, Rob Liefeld's inscrutable mercenary is popular as hell with the fanboys right now, and doesn't show any sign of cooling off. (You know how many other characters can support multiple titles in this market? Not Wonder Woman. Not Captain America. Not Iron Man.) Like Venom was a certain amount of time ago, Deadpool is a potent symbol of superhero excess and just how much market share it commands, and if I had to pick the next ubiquitous superhero he would be it. Especially if his movie ever gets made.
Fanboy love aside, though, Deadpool reaches iconic status for what he symbolizes in the development of mainstream comics storytelling. The recent boom in high-energy, low-content "kicksplode" hero comics is nothing if not an attempt to revisit the airheaded bestsellers of Liefeld's '90s and try to figure out what made them so compelling to so many people. As proven by the number of books he headlines, Deadpool and his ilk are something that has worked continues to work well in comics, financially if not always creatively. As long as there are nerds reading the stuff, there'll be an immature, self-referential poster boy selling to them. Deadpool's here, and probably here to stay. Give it a decade or two and he'll be as big as the Flash.
Also: this is total speculation, but given that 99% of both the superhero and art sides of the industry treat Liefeld's work like it's got AIDS, I think it's very likely that a bunch of snot-nosed newcomers to comics are going to start affecting his influence at some point in the near future. What repels the old guard will always attract the new wave, and there is a lot to appreciate in Liefeld. As comics artists with fully-formed aesethtics go, he's pretty underutilized as an inspiration, and I wouldn't be surprised to see guys coming out of nowhere with Image-derived styles that get described as "like Liefeld, but good" or something similar. Mark my words, we'll be seeing some Deadpool in more than just the fanboy blogs soon.
ENID (from Ghost World)
This one might share too much common ground with Jimmy Corrigan, but I think Dan Clowes the artist is distinct enough from Ware, the other titan of the graphic novel boom, to command a separate spot in the imagination of tomorrow's artists. There may be a few superficial similarities, and a few more of milieu, but Clowes has a vastly different storytelling style that in a lot of ways has been more influential than Ware's. I wouldn't even be surprised to see "post-Clowes" and "post-Ware" schools of serious-comics makers dividing up the bookstore market soon like post-Moore and post-Miller material currently divides up the hero comics racks. Enid is an eminently recognizable cartoon, and with a cult classic movie featuring one of the best comics-to-screen character transitions of all time on her side. As Jimmy Corrigan already symbolizes a certain type of comic, so too does Enid: the hipstery, defiant, snobbish, somehow lovable character type that's come to rule the "indie culture" finds its closest sequential-art parallel in Ghost World. This is a low blow, but if comics have a Michael Cera, she's it. As Clowes's fame and influence grow, so too will Enid's status as the iconograph that best symbolizes his contributions to comics -- and to a larger spectrum of the culture, as well.
You know what comic kids right now are reading? Bone. I probably sold more of those colorized Scholastic Bone books to parents and their children during my retail days than I did of everything else combined. Jeff Smith's a part of a massive number of grade-schoolers' minds right now, and some of those kids are going to be making comics in ten years. Just as a generation that had grown up in the Golden Age brought back hero comics in the late '50s/early '60s, so too is Bone going to spread its influence far and wide across the medium a decade or so from now. And it isn't just that a lot of kids read this stuff -- a lot of kids read Naruto, too, but Masashi Kishimoto isn't half the pure cartoonist Smith is. Hell, I can think of maybe three other people working in the field who have Smith's chops, and the Bone clan, especially their book's big star, are his greatest creation, an expression of perfect cartoon minimalism that finds an equal only in Charlie Brown and Nancy. That puffy white shape is as iconic as the Superman symbol, or will be soon anyway.
The fact that such pure material is sticking into so many kids' heads during their formative years is huge; I wouldn't be surprised if Bone emerges as the cartoon statement of the late 1900s/early 2000s after we start seeing its influence come out of artists who missed life in the last millennium. At the very least, Jeff Smith will end up as the Carl Barks of our times, with an influence that stretches across genres and ends up almost undefinable. Room at that table for a few more? Yeah? Then here's to the future....
Anybody else got some? Let me know!!