Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Report from the Golden Age of Art Comics: Geneviève Castrée, Peter Bagge, Rutu Modan and Brian Ralph

Robert Boyd

I've read a considerable number of comics recently. I'm going to try to discuss a few of them every week, and I've been thinking about a way to organize them. "In the order that I read them" was my default choice, and "randomly" was considered. But I decided to group them as much as possible by publisher.

Doing this gives a small claim of authorship to the publisher, which may rub some readers wrong. To claim any authorship for the publishers sounds a little like the corporate comics published by Marvel and DC and Archie--comics where the corporation owns the work and the artists who create the work are replaceable cogs. That arrangement, where a corporation has legal authorship, has come to really disgust me over the past few years. But that's not what I'm talking about in these reviews.

Instead, I'm thinking about the roles of gatekeepers or taste-makers that occur in any kind of art. I'm talking about the impresarios. In comics, they're the publishers and editors. In theater and movies they're the producers. In visual art, it's the gallerists and curators. And so forth. Publishers over time develop a particular voice based on the kinds of projects they choose to take on. They are in business to make money, sure, but to reduce the motivation of a publisher of art comics to money is simply ridiculous. No one gets rich publishing art comics. At best you can survive if you run a lean operation and have a good eye.

One of the great survivors is Drawn & Quarterly. Founded in Montreal in 1990, their first successful artists were Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth, followed soon by Adrian Tomine. Although all these artists were quite different (and became more different as they developed as artists), they all did fairly unflinching autobiographical comics--and popularized a genre that came to define art comics in the 90s. It would be unfair to characterize all of Drawn & Quarterly's output as low-key autobiographical comics, but enough of it was that they got a reputation for autobiography. (As you will see, only one of the four comics below is autobiographical.) Drawn & Quarterly has evolved quite a lot over time, but one big reason for the change in flavor is the addition of Tom Devlin as the company's second editor (after founder Chris Oliveros).

Devlin ran a small publisher called Highwater Books in Boston and New York from 1997 to 2004. He had a very firm and peculiar aesthetic philosophy--the comics he published were precious objects, they weren't realistic (and in that regard quite different from many of Drawn & Quarterly's main comics), they were often quite experimental. When he was brought into the Drawn & Quarterly fold, at first he was a bit shy about pushing his tastes. But books that to my eye seem very much like "Devlin" books started to pop up. Here's a story that will illustrate this. Back in the early days of Highwater (late 90s), I was visiting him and he gave me a set of photocopies of a comic strip I had never heard of. It was Moomin, drawn by the great Finnish children's author Tove Jannson. It was crisply photocopied and bound (Devlin worked part time at a copy shop). He had discovered this strip--a masterpiece of wry, humanist humor and whimsy--and was eager to share it with cartoonists and other editors like me. Then in 2006, Drawn & Quarterly came out with the first of many official Moomin comic strip book collections, Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Obviously this was Devlin's baby.

This goes back to the "authorship" of publishers. It's inevitable that Drawn & Quarterly would evolve as a publisher, but when a small publisher brings on a new acquiring editor like Tom Devlin, the flavor of its overall output will sharply change. It's what a publisher chooses to publish that defines its voice, and that voice changes as the personnel that make up a publisher changes. (I wonder, for example, how Fantagraphics will change now that Kim Thompson has died.) The four reviews below will give you an idea of the range of what Drawn & Quarterly is currently publishing. I would say that Susceptible is definitely an Oliveros acquisition, and Reggie-12 is a Devlin acquisition. The other two? Who knows and really, who cares--they're all Drawn & Quarterly books in the end.

Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012). Susceptible is an exceptional example of autobiographical comics and therefore fits in with Drawn & Quarterly's historical profile. And according to an interview with Castrée, she was asked to do something by publisher Chris Oliveros in 2001--back when autobiographical comics were more prominent in Drawn & Quarterly's list. By 2012, Susceptible is an odd book out in terms of content, but in terms of quality, it fits right in.

Geneviève Castrée, Susceptible page 27

The book deals with Castrée's life from birth until she's 18. In the book Castrée is called Goglu, her mother's nickname for her. Above we see her when she was 6, after having a nightmare about Marc Lépine's anti-feminist massacre of 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. This anchors her story in time, but generally the depiction of time in the story is more personal. It could be the story of a North American child from anytime in the past 30-odd years. Castrée is being raised by a single mother in Montreal. Her father is in British Columbia, "a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear."

Her mother is quite young, an accountant who put off getting a college education because of Goglu. She drinks quite a lot and has a somewhat chaotic life that Castrée recoils from.

Geneviève Castrée, Susceptible page 36, top tier

The book is episodic and there are a lot of captions setting the scene. However, she mostly avoids analyzing the scene from the point of view of her 30-year-old self. While her means of expression are sophisticated and adult, she is writing about the perceptions of a child. So her reaction to her mom drinking and taking drugs is rationalized by the fact that drugs are illegal. This is a 10-year-old's world. A 30-year-old would have a different way of thinking about what it meant to have a passive-aggressive alcoholic mother.

Geneviève Castrée, Susceptible page 37

Her panels are spare--no more visible information in included than necessary. This means there are a lot of panels like the top two, where there are figures and nothing else. After establishing the reality of the piggyback ride in the first two panels, Castrée only needs a barrage of speech balloons in the middle. But in the bottom two panels, she shows the stairs to remind the reader of the distance she is trying to keep from the intoxicated adults upstairs.

Geneviève Castrée, Susceptible page 67

As Castrée becomes a teenager, she has a typically contentious relationship with her mother that is complicated by her mother's drinking. She is sent to therapy, where her councilors eventually tell her to tough it out a couple of more years and move out. Not exactly the most empathetic advice, but realistic. At 17, she moves to that mythical land of BC, to a rural part of Vancouver Island to live with her father. Despite having the fact that they've only seen each other once since she was 5, he takes her in and builds her a small cabin so she can have solitude.

Geneviève Castrée, Susceptible page75

When she turns 18, she moves back to Montreal for a summer, where the above scene takes place. Again, the spare panels (leaving out the borders this time). Castrée's story is both personal and typical of childhood in the late 20th century. Lots of readers will find plenty to identify with. Her drawing is very appealing, combining aspects of classic French language comics (which she read from an early age) and the comics that came out of the North American alternative and self-published comics scene--I see strong similarities with Julie Doucet's and John Porcelino's work. But her work feels a little more grounded than those two artists, who are respectively more surreal and more poetic than Castrée. While Susceptible is within the tradition of autobiographical comics, it is a strongly individualistic work. Its rhythms are unusual but appropriate. Curiously, her technique of presenting a string of episodes is precisely how Peter Bagge structures his otherwise very different book, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). Peter Bagge is best known for his two comic book series from the 80s and 90s, Neat Stuff and Hate. These were humorous fictional comics, but after the end of Hate, he started dabbling in non-fictional reportage in such venues as Suck and Reason. This practice evolved into a series of short comics about America's  founding fathers. Throughout, he maintained his rubbery cartoon drawing style and his humor. Woman Rebel is not strictly a biography in comics form of Margaret Sanger but instead a series of episodes from her life, mostly one and two pages long. Bagge follows the 72 pages of comics with a 20-page prose appendix, which provides a context for each of the episodes. The comic section and the appendix together form a pretty decent biography of Sanger.

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 14

Bagge's drawing is pretty much the same as when he was drawing Hate--highly stylized humorous faces, figures with no joints in their arms and legs. But the writing is not always humorous--as in this scene where Sanger and the doctor she works for visit a woman who tried to give herself an abortion and nearly killed herself. But what's great about Woman Rebel is how frequently Bagge is able to turn episodes of her life into comedy, such as this bizarre scene where she meets pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis.

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 31

As is spelled out in the forward by Thomas Spurgeon (which is practically a review of the book the reader is about to read), Bagge "portrays Sanger as a comedic protagonist, as someone with an inflated sense of self and a whole list of appetites and specific desires to fulfill on her way from cradle to grave." We're not used to seeing biographies like this. In books, modern biography tends toward encyclopedic documentation (particularly of every fault and stumble). In film, hagiography is the norm. The notion that the life of an important and accomplished person like Margaret Sanger could be told in a voice that resembles, say, Eastbound & Down doesn't enter our consciousness. But Bagge already has a great narrative voice, and Woman Rebel proves that he can apply it to the most unlikely subjects.

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 51

Sanger, of course, was the leading proponent of contraception in the early 20th century. Her own mother had 18 pregnancies, and the lack of control that women had over their own bodies often lead to tragedy, as seen in the sequence on pages 14 and 15. Her crusade was opposed strongly by the Catholic Church (and other religious institutions) and the U.S. Postal service, which repeatedly seized Sanger's publications and pamphlets.

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 55

Her reputation now is a bit frayed because of attacks on her from the right and the left. The right excoriates her for founding Planned Parenthood and in general for being in favor of contraception. The right has a problem with female agency in general, and certainly with sexually adventurous persons like Sanger. On the left, there is her support for eugenics (which was quite tepid, as depicted on page 55), her speech to the Ku Klux Klan women's auxiliary and her clinic in Harlem, for which she has been accused of wanting to wipe out the black race. (When I typed "Margaret Sanger" into Google, the third link was "Black Genocide," which accused Sanger of just that; the fifth link was a harangue against her radicalism by a neo-John Birch-ite website called "Discover the Network"; and the sixth link from a site called "LifeNews" basically accused her of being pro-infanticide.) I think her "shot by both sides" status  must have appealed to Bagge. He depicts Sanger's mission as helping women gain control of their own reproductive systems--whether those women were Catholocs, Ku Klux Klanners or African American.

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 56

Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story page 63

Sanger lived long enough to see the contraceptive pill, which represents the fulfillment of her long struggle (not that reactionaries don't continue to fight against contraception, of course). But despite her success, I think she remains too controversial a figure to be taught in high school American History classes. (Hell, we're lucky that the Texas State Board of Education permits mentioning the abolitionists and suffragettes.) So a book like this is useful for schlubs like me who had only a vague notion of what she was all about.

Bagge humanizes Sanger and places her in the context of her times. But more important, he creates an utterly amusing and engrossing story. He's funny all the way through (even in the appendix), and that's what I look for is a Bagge comic.

The Property by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). Rutu Modan was a member of an Israeli comics collective called Actus Tragicus that published beautiful comics in the 90s and 2000s. Her work then was very stylized, so for longtime readers it was quite a shock when she started working in the style she employs in The Property. The figures are simplified in the ligne clair style, but otherwise much more realistic than her earlier work. And apparently Modan used a lot of photographic sources--she credits "comic actors" for all the characters in the back of the book, including her Actus Tragicus colleagues Yirmi Pinkus and Batia Kolton.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 10

The story is built around a trip to Poland by Regina and Mica Segal, grandmother and granddaughter respectively. They share their plane with a school trip for Isreali teenagers to see the sites of the Holocaust. As you can see above, the teenagers aren't getting into the spirit of the thing. (At the end of the book, Regina and Mica are returning to Israel on the same plane as the high schoolers, who are now much more somber.) The story ostensibly involves the recovery of property by Regina that had been taken by the Nazis in the war. This sounds like a very depressing story, but what's amazing and delightful about it is that despite this background, it's actually comedy of errors, a romantic comedy spanning three generations.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 10 detail

Mica meets a tour guide named Tomasz, and over the course of seven days, their relationship swings wildly between attraction and misunderstood motives. But at first at least, they find each other fascinating. Modan uses Tomasz to wryly comment on comics as art and the sense of incomprehension that this notion evokes in the average person.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 88 detail

Tomasz's sketchbook becomes a plot point in the story. To give his comics a different look, Modan had another excellent Israeli cartoonist, Asaf Hanuka, do all of Tomasz's drawings.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 89 detail

The irony is that this conversation suggests a dichotomy between "serious" comics and "humorous" comics--but The Property straddles that division. It has a level of sophistication that you don't often see in comics. This is a comic for adults.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 100

The fly in the ointment in this story is Avram Yagodnik, a busybody who, for mysterious reasons, keeps interfering in Mica's search for the property. His part in the story slowly unfolds, as does Regina's. Like classic comedies from Shakespeare to the present, all the characters in The Property except the ingenue Mica have secrets that don't quite unfold until the end. It may be too much to say that the contentious romantic entanglements in The Property represent the contentious relationship between Polish Gentiles and Jews. Suffice it to say, it's not just Mica and Tomasz who have a complicated romance. I don't want to spoil the story, so I won't write more.

Rutu Modan, The Property page 184

For comics to mature as a medium, they have to include stories like this--stories that might remind one of the novels of David Lodge or Allison Lurie. Serious works about the absurdity of human relationships that happen to be humorous. The Property is a deeply enjoyable comic.

Reggie 12 by Brian Ralph (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). Brian Ralph was a founding member of the artists collective Fort Thunder, which spawned such artists, collectives and bands as Forcefield (including Mat Brinkman and Jim Drain) and Lightning Bolt (which includes Brian Chippendale). Ralph was the first artist to get a solo publication from Highwater Books, and he has now had three books published by Drawn & Quarterly including his latest, Reggie 12.

Brian Ralph, Reggie-12 page 12, bottom half

Reggie 12 is a robot in the mode of Astro-Boy. The strips poke gentle all-ages fun at the conventions of classic manga (as well as American comics). Most of these strips originally ran in the magazine Giant Robot, which itself was full of ironic appreciation for Japanese pop culture.

Brian Ralph, Reggie-12 page 40

Ralph playfully inverts the cliches of the comics he bases Reggie 12 on. But love for the originals comes through. Parody can be a critique of the source or an homage (and often a combination of the two). Reggie 12 veers closer to the homage end of the spectrum.

Brian Ralph, Reggie-12 page 4, top half

Often he includes homages to other comics. The maple syrup monster Landark appears to be a kind of tribute to the comics of his Fort Thunder compatriot Mat Brinkman.

Brian Ralph, Reggie-12 page 16

And the "Space Gods" above are a deliberate reference to Jack Kirby's 70s comic, The Eternals. Reggie 12 must fight against Jemiah the Analyzer, which is the actual name of a Celestial (the giant space gods in The Eternals). It doesn't go well for Jemiah.

Brian Ralph, Reggie-12 page 18

These comics are dynamic, clever and funny. They are quite a long way from Drawn & Quarterly's realistic roots and are therefore a good example of how the company has grown and evolved over the years.


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