Sunday, November 17, 2013

Report from the Golden Age of Art Comics: Jim Woodring, Gilbert Hernandez and 40 Years of Minicomics

Robert Boyd

Continuing my survey of current comics I've read, here are a bunch of comics published by Fantagraphics. As I've written before, I was an editor for Fantagraphics in the early 90s. I started with them when they moved from Los Angeles (the Simi Valley, actually) to Seattle in 1989. This move, weirdly enough, resulted in a huge windfall for them. They sold a house that they owned in Agoura Hills and bought two houses in Seattle! Co-publisher Kim Thompson told me that the company made more profit from that one deal than they had made since they began publishing.

But life with a small-press alternative publisher is always a bit precarious. Fantagraphics has gone through several serious, company-threatening crises. Shortly after the move to Seattle, the dire implications of the "black and white bust" of 1987 caught up with them. Great titles that had sold very well just a year or so earlier fell off precipitously. That's when they started Eros Comix (taking a page from Barney Rossett and Grove Press--publishing smut to finance art) as well as when they ramped up their catalog sales.

I realize this company history is probably a bit dull (don't worry, I discuss actual comics below). The only reason I mention it is that the death of co-founder Kim Thompson has created another crisis situation for the company. So they are running a Kickstarter campaign to pay for their spring season (book publishing is organized into two "seasons" for some reason). When I started writing this post on November 6, they were $73,000 into their campaign for $150,000. By November 12, they had raised the entire amount. (That said, they still have some good premiums and can use the extra money if you find yourself with an urge to spend some mad money between now and December 5.)

I think Kickstarter is a great tool for publishers, whether self-publishers or small presses like Fantagraphics. The reason is that they essentially act as catalogs for future books--your "donation" is really just an payment for a book that will be published and sent to you later. (For this one, I ordered a boxed set of the complete run of Eightball by Daniel Clowes.)

I don't want to belabor this. Instead, let's look at a few more-or-less recent Fantagraphics books.

Problematic: Sketchbook Drawings 2004-2012 by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books, 2012). It's impossible for me to be objective about Jim Woodring. For one thing, I've known him ever since he and his family moved to Seattle when I was living there and working for his publisher. Then in 2011, I curated an exhibit at Lawndale of work by Jim Woodring and Marc Bell. Problematic is a collection of work from Woodring's sketchbook. The sketchbook is a key locus of creativity for many cartoonists, most notably Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, who have had pages from the sketchbooks printed in handsome volumes. Unfortunately, their example can be intimidating for other cartoonists. They want to create sketchbooks as fully realized as Crumb's and Ware's. Woodring writes in the introduction:
I would buy a big, beautiful new blank book with the determination to fill it cover-to-cover with the best work of which I was capable. [...] Instead, I would fill the first twenty pages or so with stiff, sterile, overworked displays of autodidactic lug-muscle. These would be followed by desperate attempts to loosen up, resulting in eyesores so hideous that I would declare the book ruined and throw it away.
It was the discovery of small Moleskine notebooks that allowed him to embrace sketchbook life. The Moleskine notebooks are small enough that he can hold it in his hand as he draws. The beige paper preempts the desire to use white-out to cover his mistakes.  As a consequence, the work is fresh and spontaneous.

Some, like this one, are drawings from his mundane existence, pretty much realistic. Of course, he embraces some things that the rest of us might recoil from. (I was pleased to see that one of the "realistic" drawings he did was of a nut on the street in Houston from his time here.)

But most of the drawings are along these lines--fantastic, bizarre, highly imaginative.

You flip through this small but thick book having your mind repeatedly blown by Woodring's fecund imagination and astonishing drawing prowess. These drawings are blown up to 140% of their original size, which is astonishing. Most illustrators will tell you that shrinking a drawing is preferable because it covers up a lot of little mistakes. Conversely, blowing it up amplifies its imperfections. So for an artist to deliberately blow up his work implies one of two things. First, that the artist has no ego. He doesn't care if you see his mistakes. The other possibility is that the artist knows he is the shit and that his drawings will look excellent even when blown up. Curiously, Woodring may possess both of these seemingly contradictory qualities.

Fran by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books, 2013). According to the flap copy, this book can either be read before Congress of the Animals, after Congress of Animals, or as a stand-alone story. In Congress of Animals, Woodring's protagonist, the odd cat-like "funny animal" character Frank leaves his hitherto self-contained world, the Unifactor, and meets Fran. Although the characters Fank and Fran seem sexless, we can call Frank a male and Fran a female based on their names alone. But they are also very similar (as are their names). Fran has a slightly different head than Frank (longer ears) and her body is subtly different.

Fran finds them in wedded bliss. One day a hideous creature steals an object of Frank's. Frank chases him, kills him, and discovers that the creature had a hoard of stolen objects. Frank and Fran examine the haul and discover amongst the varied items a projector. The projector works by having the user wear it on one's head. Then it shows what's happened to the wearer in reverse chronological order.

Jim Woodring, Fran page 24

Fran however is unwilling to try it (presumably because she'd like to keep her past secret) and in her anger breaks the machine. Frank is extremely angry with her and Fran runs away. I won't say any more about the story--you'll have to read it yourself.

Like all Frank stories, this one has a lot of mysterious, fantastic events. They are compelling in the same way Dr. Seuss books are compelling. I want to read this over and over as much as I wanted to read Happy Birthday to You! over and over when I was 8. Woodring's way of drawing the fantastic is so beautiful and precise--his work is a strong argument for high craft in comics.

Jim Woodring, Fran page 73

I mean, look at page 73 when Frank's rocket crashes into a moon. Wow.

Jim Woodring, Fran page 75

And one other thing I want to mention about Fran and all of the Frank stories. Woodring is a great designer and architect.  I would love to see actual furniture (and even actual buildings, like the one on page 75) constructed out of Woodring's imagined furniture and buildings. They're fanciful, sure, but otherwise seem solid and more-or-less plausible. Maybe if I win the lottery, I'll build "Woodringland." Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with his beautiful books.

The Children of Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books, 2013). Gilbert Hernandez has been publishing work with Fantagraphics since the early 80s. He and brothers Jaime and Mario created the magazine Love & Rockets, one of the finest and most artistically significant comics of the past 50 years. Hernandez's best work is based around the inhabitants of a small Central American town called Palomar. The Children of Palomar returns to this setting. It's composed of four related stories. Back in the 80s and 90s, they probably would have been published in four consecutive issues of Love & Rockets. But these were originally published in  an Italian co-publication with Coconino Press, which says something about the creative ways independent publishers like Fantagraphics must employ to finance projects.

Gilbert Hernandez, The Children of Palomar page 5

The original title of the Coconino Press/Fantagraphics copublication was New Tales of Old Palomar, which is very apt. Hernandez is taking the chronology of Palomar that he has already established in many, many stories from Love & Rockets and shoe-horning new events, some of which fill in gaps that had only been implied in earlier stories. For instance, the two swift-moving thieves on page five are the sisters Tonantzin and Diana.

Gilbert Hernandez, The Children of Palomar page17, panel 1

Tonantzin and Diana will become very consequential characters in the Palomar stories, but their introduction to the town had never been depicted until now.

Gilbert Hernandez, The Children of Palomar page 72

In the third story of the collection, Tonantzin is older (a young teenager, I'd judge) and an accepted member of the community. She sees a strange baby who speaks to her. This is a device Hernandez has used before--the vision that only certain people can see but that other people accept as real. See for example the classic story "Sopa de Gran Pena" from 1983. It's because of touches like these that Gilbert Hernandez's work has been called magic realism. Obviously this is characteristic of many Latin American writers from "el boom", but the writer Hernandez reminds me of is Nigerian writer Ben Okri, the author of The Famished Road, whose characters live simultaneously in the quotidian world and a supernatural world that is overlaid on ordinary existence. Tonantzin can see the baby, the "Blooter," because the Blooter is trying to communicate to her. But other people know the Blooter exists, even if they can't perceive it.

Hernandez was born and raised in the United States and has stated that the Palomar stories originally came from stories told him by older relatives about Mexico. But the supernatural or magical elements don't seem "authentic"--they seem more like things that Hernandez has made up. After all, he didn't grow up in an isolated village in Central America, nor is he an anthropologist who has studied the rituals and beliefs of other cultures. What he has done is to imagine a supernatural existence in Palomar that exists simultaneously over the mundane rational world. This overlayed supernatural world is half folkloric and half science fictional, which reflects Hernandez's own cultural background.

Gilbert Hernandez, The Children of Palomar page 72, panel 2

This can be seen in the home of the bruja that Tonantzin visits on page 72. Tonantzin is trying to get the Blooter to leave her alone and is asking for magical help. The bruja's home has a large circular window. Hernandez grew up reading American comics. That window is a visual quotation from Dr. Strange, the supernatural title created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in the 60s.

Frank Brunner, commissioned drawing of Dr. Strange and Clea, 2002

Here is an example of the window drawn by artist Frank Brunner, who drew Dr. Strange during a memorable run in the mid-70s. Dr. Strange allowed artists like Ditko and Brunner to go wild visually, but their stories were always fundamentally pulp stories--good versus evil in a magical setting. In Hernandez's Children of Palomar, the magical stuff is simply an aspect of reality, to be dealt with like any other aspect of reality. It's there to be endured and enjoyed.

Treasury Of Mini Comics Volume One edited by Michael Dowers (Fantagraphics Books, 2013). Three years ago, Fantagraphics published an 892-page brick of a book called Newave!: The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s (848 pages) I guess enough people liked this super-obscure corner of comics history that they put out a second book, which by being subtitled "Volume One" implies future volumes as well.

The first thing you notice about this book (and its precursor) is the diminutive trim size--4 3/4 by 6 inches. There is a historical reason for this size--it is very close to the size of many 8-page mini-comics over the past few decades. Here's how it worked. You drew your comic and then pasted it down onto two 8 1/2 x 11 boards, four pages of the comic on each. You photocopied them onto both sides of a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 inches copy paper. You fold this over once, then once more until you have basically a 4 1/4 x 5 1/2 inch booklet. You trim it and staple it, and for the cost of one double sided copy and two stapes (one if you're being thrifty), you have yourself a sweet little comic book.

What this book demonstrates is that from the late 60s almost to the present, this has been a popular way for people to do self-published minicomics. Dowers had lots to chose from to fill this volume. In 1992, I started writing a column for The Comics Journal called "Minimalism" that was devoted to minicomics. I wrote it through 1996, after which point it was taken over by Tom Spurgeon and other writers. In my experience looking at hundreds of minicomics, they came in all shapes and sizes. The 4 1/4 x 5 1/2 inch 8-pager was common, but I don't think it made up the majority of published minicomics. I mention this because it shows how much is left out of Treasury of Mini Comics and Newave!, despite the fact that they collectively have 1700-odd pages. The amount of utterly ephemeral self-published material that falls into the general category of "mini comics" is immense, and because of its underground existence, it will never be fully catalogued (even though there are some large collections--for example, the one at Washington State University at Pullman.)

Matt Feazell, Cynicalman Meets the Boss pages 4 and 5, 1994

The work in Treasury of Mini Comics is presented more-or-less chronologically, starting with comics by Leonard Rifas and Justin Green from 1969 and 1972 respectively. Then there is a long section of the cartoonists who were active in the 80s, like Matt Feazell. Feazell is particularly important because he created a style that was extremely well-suited to the format he published the work in. By using stick figures, he was able to cram a huge amount of content into each page. And he decisively demonstrates how expressive such seemingly limited drawing can be. This is a model for many of the best minicomics in this volume.

Macedonio Manuel Garcia, Tales From the Inside #3 pages 6 and 7, 1982

Another important aspect of minicomics is that they gave voice to people who way outside mainstream culture. Colin Upton has produced hundreds of pages of droll, whimsical, revealing comics while living an extremely modest life on disability payments in Vancouver, Canada. And then there is Macedonio Manuel Garcia (above) who did comics while serving time at the Ramsey Unit prison. Considering that the average alternative comics artist is white middle-class 20-something hipster, minicomics offer a little variety.

Marc Bell and Rupert Bottenberg, Arbeitees: Einer Industrium Dokument den Marc Bell ut Rupert Dottenberg pages 4 and 5, 1996

Fiona Smyth, At Monastiraki pages 2 and 3, 2008

Peter Thompson, I'm the Devil pages 4 and 5, 2007

Unless you draw very small and very clean, the 8-pager format doesn't lend itself to ordinary comics narratives. It's not uncommon for minicomics to be just a series of full-page drawings around a theme or idea. A bunch of the work in this volume falls into that category, such as the ones above by Marc Bell, Peter Thompson and Fiona Smyth. I tend to like this kind of work a lot--it seems very appropriate for the tiny format. Otherwise, you have to force yourself to draw in a minimal style.

Carrie McNinch, You Don't Get There From Here #11 pages 14 and 15, 2008-09

But as I've stated in regard to Matt Feazell, minimalism works for some artists like Carrie McNinch, who not only manages to put an exceptional amount of personal detail in her diary comics, but also provides a sound-track.

Ron Regé, Jr., Yeast Hoist #6 pages 10 and 11, 1997

One of the wonderful things about a book like this it shows you work of artists who later achieved acclaim (at least in the small pond of art comics) before many people knew about their work. Ron Regé, Jr. is one example (he also drew the cover). In addition to the artists already mentioned, this book has work by Esther Pearl Watson, John Porcellino, J. Bradley Johnson, Molly Kiely and others whose work is now well-known and highly respected. Aspiring cartoonists take heed. If no one wants to publish your work, publish it yourself on the cheap.

Treasury of Mini Comics volume 1 is a meaty, entertaining volume.


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