TCJ 300: Funnybook Roulette

Posted by on December 28th, 2009 at 2:44 AM


From “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” in American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, drawn by R. Crumb; ©1984 Harvey Pekar.

I would characterize the two phases as the Crumb era and the Pekar era, after the cartoonists who personified them. As the underground comics of the Crumb era, grow out of psychedelic poster art there’s an emphasis on graphic virtuosity, and a solid core of graphic virtuosos. While they had antecedents (Jules Feiffer in particular comes to mind), this is the first time that comics are consciously approached as a means of personal artistic expression on a large scale. They not only reject all censorship, but are consciously determined to do everything that anyone might want to censor something for, which can make them uncomfortable reading these days. While they occasionally tried to emulate commercial styles, particularly horror, with a couple of exceptions, the cartoonists really didn’t have those kinds of chops. On the other hand, they shared several characteristics of commercial popular art. They were a product with a ready market to appeal to: a subculture that bought a comic for a classic mass-entertainment reason, because they saw their personal lives mirrored in its pages. These comix could be perceived as pornography, or at least dirty humor (and were some of the greatest dirty humor ever created). But this was not a matter of popular artists trying to fill the appetite of a market but of bohemian artists whose ambitions coincided with a temporarily bohemian public. When their readership began to melt back into conventional commercial culture to become the rolling Baby Boom consumption cohort, underground comics weren’t equipped to follow them. As a commercial product they had more in common with drug paraphernalia than rock-and-roll records, outlaw goods that required outlaw channels of trade. But their readers were far less apt to continue to read comics than to continue to use drugs. Their commitment to comics as a form of art was no greater than their commitment to protest as a way of life. Besides, to melt into commercial culture would have required some kind of accommodation to censorship. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, the only two underground cartoonists who were popular enough to even receive the offer to buy in, were the most resolute in refusing to sell out, and the best equipped to survive the coming ice age. Stroke books were thriving and open to the idea of comics, but the comics they were open to were the sort that fit their perceived market needs, not the personal expression of cartoonists.

The Pekar era begins as the Crumb era ends. Though Harvey Pekar no doubt saw himself as part of the original underground movement, he operated in a post-underground environment. Aside from having some of his stories drawn by Robert Crumb, his work has none of the characteristics that appealed to the counterculture market, which was no more than a remnant at the time anyway. He is supported not by a ready market but a determination not to take no for an answer. The emphasis of the Pekar era is as much literary as graphic. It coincides with the punk-rock ethos of democratization of art and rejection of virtuosity. Pekar himself didn’t draw at all, and though some of the cartoonists he engages are excellent, others are pedestrian, and at least in the early days the pedestrian ones filled most of the pages. Furthermore, many of the cartoonists who would characterize the era published before their styles were fully developed. Though associated with punk rock it can’t be said that punks supported the second eruption the way hippies and freaks supported the first. Indeed, each cartoonist can appear to be a subculture of his own. It developed into two not entirely friendly camps, one associated with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw Magazine, which had a fine-arts leaning, the other with Weirdo under Crumb and later Peter Bagge, which emphasized the punk ethos. Having formed an impression of the era based on the early work, it took me a while to realize, as Crumb himself acknowledged, that the later era had outdone the earlier era in every phase. On the other hand, the Pekar era brought with it the dubious idea that once you’ve drawn the mundane details of an ordinary life on a piece of paper, art enough has been applied. What makes this palatable I would suggest is the experience of comics.

This image and next: from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910, by and ©2009 Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.

Where once reading comics meant reading mass-market, commercial comics, you can now have yourself a full diet of comics without reading commercial comics at all. Hand someone who had never heard of a comic book one of Ben Katchor’s and he would see it as a natural way of portraying human experience artistically. (“Now why do they call this a comic book?” he asks. Katchor would be a good subject for this experiment, because, unlike a lot of art-comics cartoonists, he doesn’t make constant ironic reference to commercial comics.) A peculiarity of this revolution in content is that, unlike in other art forms, the weight of talent is on the commercial rather than fine-art side. It is as if Vladimir Nabokov approached his subject matter with the verbal resources of C.S. Forester, and vice versa. An art comic can have an impact beyond the experience of comics it provides because of its deeper subject matter, whereas a comic with trivial subject matter can provide a deeper experience of comics.

One result of the revolution in subject matter has been a perverse evolution of the critical treatment of superhero comics. In the first convolution, superhero comics are dismissed as the lowest form of trash, suited only for ill-bred children of permissive parents. In the second convolution we say no, no, underneath their garish exterior superhero comics are true works of art with deeply serious things to say. In the third convolution we say that after salvaging the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jack Cole in a Harrowing of Hell sort of way, we say you were right in the first place, it is all juvenile crap. How far this “we” goes outside of the immediate sphere of The Comics Journal is open to question, but it goes far enough to be known to annoy people. I doubt it’s of much concern to the cartoonist who would like nothing better than to draw superheroes all his life. Left in the lurch is the cartoonist who has broader artistic ambitions but who needs to draw the sort of comics that pay a living wage, and would like to have his work respected nevertheless. I sympathize with the quandary, but stories about people with fantastic powers are not particularly well suited to portraying a life where people don’t have fantastic powers. While superhero comics comprise something between 80 and 95 percent of sales and of comics published (excluding manga), they represent between five and 15 percent of the expressive range of the medium. When comics that aren’t burdened with that apparatus are available, even if their creators have to take a vow of poverty to create them, they’re going to make the mainstream product feel compromised in comparison.

Alan Moore makes the case for fitting ambition into the commercial context in the best possible way in Century: 1910 from his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. He has managed to retain the interest of the regular comics audience and add to it a crossover readership, with the result that Century is the best-selling graphic novel as I write this, and the next installment will no doubt be the best seller as you read this. The centerpiece is a reworking of The Threepenny Opera. The daughter of Captain Nemo rejects her father’s political piratical ways and runs away to London where she goes to work as a scullery maid, presumably because nothing more oppressive was available. She takes the name Jenny Diver, and a ballad singer narrates her degradation with a rewritten and expanded version of “Pirate Jenny.” This is a tour-de-force; the last time I saw a parodist take on something this famous and match it was never, and certainly not in a comic book. What sets Moore’s reworking of Bertolt Brecht apart from Brecht’s reworking of John Gay and hauls it back to its mass-art roots is that Moore’s version is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. When Brecht’s Polly Peachum finishes singing “Pirate Jenny” she’s no less oppressed than when she began; when the song ends on behalf of Moore’s Jenny Diver, the Nautilus is on hand to make her dreams come true. Brecht tells you that the wretchedness he portrays will only be relieved by removing the conditions that caused it; Moore leaves you with the illusion that the oppressed have been avenged. Moore’s metafictional game-playing is virtuouso stuff all around, he has serious things on his mind, and his literary references make no accommodations for stragglers. What most holds Century: 1910 and all of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen back is Kevin O’Neill’s artwork. He might be the one cartoonist in all the world Moore would want doing this, but he is simply incapable of making any emotional connection with the reader. The whole conceit of League is that it’s what a modern-day comic book would be like if it were created in the Victorian (and now Edwardian) era, and while Moore can pull off the writing, what it demands is artwork that looks like it could have been done in the 19th century but works as adventure-comics art. Who could pull that off I don’t know, maybe Bernie Wrightson in his prime, but O’Neill can’t even begin to try. Any writer who can’t draw or cartoonist who can’t write is going to be frustrated in reaching the highest potential of the art form. Whatever its limitations, though, you will find more art in Century: 1910 than a lot of the art-comics that come out this year.

What is the place of the superhero in the art form? On an experience-of-comics level, Jack Kirby artistically justifies the existence of the superhero genre all by himself. The art of cartooning is the visual expression of emotional states. Jack Kirby expressed emotions that no one has had yet. Though he drew every kind of comic book they’d pay you to draw, nothing but the superhero genre would give him the scope to express himself. Everything beyond that is gravy, of which there is no shortage. Our ancient ancestors delighted in stories of the doings of demigods, and this was indeed the highest form of literature so long as people thought demigods actually existed. As this belief waned, this kind of story lost its respectability (except as folklore, and then only the old stories) until they were thought to be fit for no one but children. By the time it was invented, I seriously doubt that something like Superman could have come into existence without a medium that was bought directly by children, simply because it’s a daydream a grownup would have been embarrassed to admit to himself he had. It is after all a concept that leaps mere fantasy with a single bound into the realm of make-believe. Once it gained the imprimatur of success, which in America makes anything respectable, its appeal could spread to other age groups. What we see today, probably more through the movies and TV than comic books themselves, is that once they’ve been given permission, people enjoy stories of the doings of demigods as much as they ever did. Beyond that, from the beginning, the genre opened a rich vein of self-satire. Cartoonists from Jack Cole to Kyle Baker have taken a cockeyed delight in the absurdity of what they are doing, serendipitously creating a kind of superhero comic for people who don’t like superhero comics.

From Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man #4, ©2004 DC Comics.

I honestly don’t read enough of the contemporary commercial output to judge how good it is. For all I know there could be all manner of great superhero comics I haven’t seen. What I do see strikes me as just not good comics. In an odd reversal of the general trend of comic-book history, it seems as though there are more good writers working in the genre than good cartoonists, which I guess is a measure of what kind of opportunities there are for a writer these days. There have been a number of series that were not only highly acclaimed by others but interesting to me when I dipped into them. But I didn’t feel compelled to continue with them, because the art just didn’t engage me — Sandman and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing for two. What I see in superhero comics, again based on limited exposure, is that the main concern of the cartoonist is to make the imagined world seem real, and that this is pursued not through the art of telling stories and expressing emotions through pictures that cartoonists have developed over the last century, but through superficial effects and literal cartooning that sacrifices the expressive capability of the medium. However, even if I were willing to do the necessary research to test these perceptions, I would be loath to comment, because even if they were what I thought of as good comics, I still wouldn’t be reading them. My tastes are so out of sync with those of the readers of contemporary commercial comics that I don’t see that my opinions would be of any value to them.

I look around myself 30 years after I started writing about comics and I see the cheaply produced children’s comic magazine replaced by formats more lavish than I could have imagined back then, once-buried classics coming back into print in mass profusion, comics of all styles and levels of ambition publishable if not profitable, and incremental but growing inroads being made into the world of general bookselling and the opening, however tenuous, into a readership with a wider tastes and different values. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going to wake up any minute now, but it’s beginning to look a little like the world we dreamed of.

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2 Responses to “TCJ 300: Funnybook Roulette”

  1. patford says:

    It’s interesting that aside from comic books until fairly recent times cartoons as film and as print were created primarily for adults.
    Newspaper comics were created to be read by adults. Most theatrical cartoons from the 30’s until the 60’s were created for adults.
    The early Disney features weren’t created for children, the Looney-Tunes shorts were created for adults.
    Looking at the popular movies of today it’s a wonder anyone would question why an adult would read a comic book. A better question might be,”Why do adults go to super hero movies, action movies, and sophomoric comedies?”
    Good stories created for children have always been appreciated by people of all ages if they are well done. The Christmas season reminds us of a perfect example. The Seuss/Jones Grinch cartoon is well liked by almost everyone. It’s a gem, near flawless in every way. The Seuss book the cartoon is adapted from was written for children, and the cartoon follows it closely, but an adult can enjoy the cartoon, even see it as a classic. It’s a children’s story which has greater depth of thought than the slapstick Chuck Jones Looney-Tunes cartoons which were made primarily for adults, although enjoyed by children.
    Like the Grinch another Christmas TV special, was the first Peanuts cartoon. Unlike the Seuss/Jones Grinch the Peanuts cartoon was written for adults (as was the Schulz comic strip), but is appreciated by small children.
    The depth of a piece of work really has nothing to do with the vocabulary list being employed by the author. The maturity of a work has nothing to do with the “adult content” it might contain.
    It all comes down to one thing for me. It’s the creator who interests me. Is the creator a thoughtful, sincere, interesting, person who has something he wants to say, and does he say it well. If you have a creator who is interested in telling stories, then who that creator is, and how he thinks will fill up his work even if it’s an adventure strip, or a super hero comic book.

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