Sunday, October 20, 2019

Michael Galbreth, RIP

Michael Galbreth, the tall half of the Art Guys, died yesterday. I'm staggering under this news. There is much to say about this man and his work. Perhaps once I have collected my thoughts, I will write something. For now, I thought I'd publish some of the photos I've taken of Michael over the years, usually while he and fellow Art Guy Jack Massing were doing a performance.

These were all taken at a performance the Art Guys did at Notsuoh in July, 2013.


A month later, they did this performance in front of City Hall.

This is from a performance they did in November, 2013. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Dispossession by Simon Grennan

Dispossession by Simon Grennan (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

Adaptations of classic literature into comics form are almost universally terrible, so one would be forgiven for imagining that this adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel John Caldigate would be similarly bad. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Grennan (best known for his collaborations with Christopher Sperandio) manages to take this 600-page Victorian novel and condense it convincingly into 93 pages. How does he manage it? He does it by a careful elliptical construction. He lets the pictures tell the story and skips anything unnecessary to the telling. (It helps if you know the outline of the novel before you read it.)

This approach allows him to add a subplot not present in the Trollope novel--a story of an aboriginal second wife who leaves her husband as they interact with the European city dwellers and miners of the story. Their dialogue is in the Wiradjuri language. The Wiradjuri are an ethnic group of Aboriginal people who lived in New South Wales. This subplot seems kind of tacked on, as if Grennan thought it necessary to remind readers that John Caldgate and his companions were all extracting wealth from Australia as colonizers, but it has parallels to the story in Trollope's novel. Caldigate essentially has two wives, which causes him much trouble, as does Gulpilil, the Aboriginal man in the Wiradjuri subplot.

If you had seen Grennan's photo-based comics done with Sperandio, you will be surprised by the artwork here. He has a very loose style, that recalls Blutch's comics. He tells the story in a rigid 9-panel grid on the page, and the work is uncinematic. There are no close ups and the angles are usually straight-on. Most of the characters are shown in full-figure, which reminds me of Gabrielle Bell's work.

The format is quite lovely. 9" x 11" trim-size with glossy, full-color pages. The edition I have is a hard-cover, but Amazon has a Kindle version available as well.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Texas Connection to the George Washington High Mural Controversy

Robert Boyd

Over the past few months, there has been a simmering controversy over a series of murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The murals, painted as frescos in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff for the WPA, depict the life of George Washington. The controversy stems from scenes depicting Washington as a slave owner and a scene where Washington is pointing to the West where ghostly grey settlers are migrating--stepping over the dead body of a native American.

Victor Arnautoff, fresco panel, 1936

These images have been controversial since the 60s. The San Francisco school board convened a panel to decide what to do about the murals and in February, they issued the following statement:
“We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.”
The school district budgeted $600.00 to paint over it. (It sounds extremely expensive, but apparently part of that was to cover the cost of anticipated lawsuits.) Not surprisingly, this has caused an uproar. As of two days ago, the SFISD board had reversed itself, planning instead to cover the murals (in some way that doesn't permanently destroy them) after digitizing them so that scholars could still study them.

The artist who created the murals, Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), is an interesting figure. He was born in the Ukraine and fought with the Whites during the Russian Civil War. After the Whites lost, he fled to China where he lived for several years. In 1925, he arrived in San Francisco to study art. After his student visa expired, he and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera. He moved back to San Francisco in the early 30s, and was just in time to participate in Works Progress Administration art projects. As an experienced muralist, he was just what the WPA was looking for. Despite his background as a White soldier in Russia, he was a left-winger in the USA, and his murals often sided with the working class. Diego Rivera apparently influenced him in this regard, and he eventually joined the Communist Party.

He became an art professor and taught at Stanford for the rest of his career in the U.S. After the death of his wife in 1961, he retired from Stanford and returned to Ukraine. He worked as an artist in the Soviet Union and died in Leningrad in 1979.

One can guess that the reason he depicted slaves and a dead native was not to glorify slavery or genocide, but to depict these facts that were often overlooked in American history. In this way, the mural seems the opposite of, say, Confederate monuments. The latter were designed to glorify, whereas I would interpret the dead native American as critical. But now these images are quite painful to many people.

And because they are frescos, they can't be easily moved. Hence the solution proposed--to cover them up.

Arnautoff did two murals in Texas for the WPA. They were post office murals. One was in College Station and one was in Linden. The College Station mural is presumed destroyed during building renovations in 1962.

Victor Arnautoff, College Station post office mural, oil on canvas, 1938 (presumed destroyed)

Victor Arnautoff, Linden post office mural, oil on canvas, 1939

As far as I can tell, the Linden mural is still there and in good condition. And by showing the back-breaking labor of African Americans, I think Arnautoff is siding with them.  (When I saw these two images by Arnautoff, I thought of the work of Kaneem Smith, whose work often features references to and depictions of those long cotton bags used by sharecroppers to pick cotton.)

On one hand, the intent of the artist here was clearly not to celebrate slavery or the genocide of the native Americans. It was, I think, to point out the fact that the "Father of our Country" owned humans and that the settlement of the west was accomplished at shocking human cost--facts that weren't usually included in whitewashed versions of American History in Arnautoff's day. (Indeed, if you look at other WPA post office murals in Texas, they offer mostly an anodyne view of Texas history, as one might expect. But Arnautoff shows African Americans working under difficult conditions.) And in this, they seem the exact opposite of the Confederate statues that were erected by subsequent generations of Confederate apologists to honor the "lost cause". Nonetheless, the intent of an artist 80 years ago won't necessarily have any bearing on the way something is seen now. While the SFISD's proposed solution is not ideal, it's certainly better than whitewashing the mural.

If readers are interested in WPA-sponsored Post Office murals in Texas, there is a beautiful book about them: The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People by Philip Parisi. That is where I got the above two images.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I, René Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 2: My Return Home by Jacques Tardi

Robert Boyd

I, René Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 2: My Return Home by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics Books, 2019)

 This volume is a little more expository than the first volume. As the Russians advanced from the east, René Tardi's stalag was emptied out. He and the other prisoners were marched by their captors to the West, staying out of the hands of the Russians, British and Americans. Jacques Tardi got his father to write a narrative of his imprisonment and gradual liberation some 40 years after the fact, and then researched the route to try to figure out what his father actually did. Like so many displaced persons at the end of the war, the way home was not a straight path. (In this, My Return Home resembles Primo Levi's classic memoir of his liberation from Auschwitz, known variously as The Truce or The Reawakening.)

Unlike the first volume, Jacques feels the need to keep us readers informed about what is happening in the last days of the war. René Tardi's group of POWs managed to skirt some of the major events at the end of the war, witnessing occasional aerial battles but avoiding heavy allied bombardments. But while they are slogging through the cold, scrambling to find whatever food they might, we are given a disjointed account of the last days for World War II. It feels overly expository, but it serves the purpose of reminding us readers of how little the vast hordes of wandering displaced persons and foot soldiers knew of what was actually happening all around them.

The book begins almost uniformly monochromatic--black and various shades of greenish grey, but as René gets closer to France, little splashes of color start to appear. In particular the red and blue of flags and red-crosses, which seem to symbolize liberation. Eventually fleshtones return and when René is reunited with his wife Henriette, Tardi allows himself a brilliant pink panel filled with flowers.

I want to make a note about the translation. Earlier volumes of Tardi that were published by Fantagraphics were translated by co-publisher Kim Thompson. Thompson passed away a few years ago, which suggested that maybe the Tardi volumes would stop (given that Thompson was their great champion). But thankfully they haven't and the translation is by Jenna Allen. Even though Thompson was fluent in French, I like Allen's translations better. I can't judge their faithfulness, since I can't read French. But a lot of Tardi's characters (including René Tardi) are tough guys, and Thompson's "tough guy" voice never felt authentic. But Allen pulls it off better than Thompson. (It pains me to say so because I loved the man...)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Earl Staley

Random undated sketchbook pages.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Where are the Glasstire books?

Robert Boyd

Tuesday night I heard a talk by Rainey Knudson, the founder of and, until very recently, the publisher of Glasstire. The talk was about Glasstire, which she founded in 2001. She mentioned that there had been 37,000 stories published in Glasstire. When I heard that, the first thought that came into my mind was, where are the Glasstire books? With that much published material, one could compile a "Best of Glasstire" book that would be excellent. In fact, you could probably create separate books for every major city in Texas, using already-published articles and reviews to paint a picture of a local art scene. I would happily read a book of Christina Rees's occasional rants.

I asked about this and Knudson said that the idea had been discussed before but that they decided that it would be too expensive and difficult. And publishing is difficult. It's a good way to turn a large fortune into a small fortune. (Of course, there are ways around this--Glasstire could team up with an already established publisher like Texas A&M University Press or the University of Texas Press.)

But her response made me think about how book publishing has declined. Not that there aren't still plenty of books. (I recently moved and by far the worst part of it was moving all my books!) But the number of books published has declined. For example, it used to be that every year, tens of millions--if not hundreds of millions--of phone books were published. These books kept printers all over the country busy and profitable. When was the last time you saw a phone book?

But books still get published. A book still seems more permanent than a collection of blog posts stored electronically. (I say this acknowledging that I'm an old guy who comes from a time before the internet existed.)

With Rainey gone, the publisher of Glasstire is Brandon Zech. Christina Rees is still the editor. Between the two, they have the skills to edit a book. And working with a publisher like the two listed above (who have the expertise needed to design, manufacture, market and distribute a book), the Glasstire book series could be launched. So Glasstire, what do you say?

Monday, December 31, 2018

It's late 2018 and I Can't Stop Reading Comics

Robert Boyd

I am a 55-year-old man who should have outgrown comics when I was 13. I sort of did. I pretty much stopped reading them throughout high school. What was happening with the Avengers just no longer felt relevant to me. But in college I rediscovered comics thanks to my roommate Hal, who had somehow stumbled across an English comic called Warrior featuring the mind-blowing comics of a guy named Alan Moore. Shortly after that, I found issue 2 of Love & Rockets at a comic store and it changed my life. And I was lucky to come along just as comics were growing more sophisticated and diverse by leaps and bounds, year after year. Because of this, I've never had a reason to quit reading them.

The first three I'm going to write about are published by a tiny English Press called Shortbox. Shortbox is the project of a young woman named Zainab Akhtar, who previously ran a review site called Comics & Cola, which she shut down in 2017. She was someone who was discovering comics and writing about those discoveries in real time. Unfortunately, she did so while being Muslim and a woman, which reportedly brought the fucking worst in the internet. She was not a victim of the racist, sexist movement known as "Comicsgate" (they coalesced a little bit after she shut down) but apparently of similar assholes. ("Comicsgate" will make an appearance a little later in this post, however.) When she announced she was shutting down Comics & Cola (in March, 2016), there was an outpouring of disappointment and sympathy. Heidi McDonald, who runs the comics site The Beat, wrote the following:
When Zainab first started writing for me, she was optimistic and idealistic, or at least expressed that most of the time. Over three years, via social media, I watched all that optimism and idealism wash away in a sea of  fatigue over daily battles, battles that should quite rightly never have had to be fought.
That said, posts kept appearing on her blog, The last one appeared in October 2017. She obviously didn't stop loving comics or wanting to engage with them.Sometime in the past couple of years, she started a small publishing outfit called Shortbox. I believe the blog was still happening when she started. Its name comes from a standard-size comic book storage box, which is slightly ironic since none of the comics she publishes seem to be "standard" size. The three I have all have small trim-sizes and are in full color. They are tiny beautiful objects.

And they are all decidedly alternative comics--they make no concession to mainstream comics tastes. And all three are by women cartoonists, although her entire catalog has plenty of male cartoonists. It's just that I happened to pick these three when I was shopping.

Starting a publishing company takes gumption. But in the past few years, quite a few new small publishers have appeared on the scene, and I am glad to see it. Good luck, Shortbox!

The Island by Joy San (Shortbox, 2018). Drawn with crayon or pastels, Jay San's The Island has dense color that reminds me a little of the great Lorenzo Mattotti. The story takes place partly on a dangerous desert island. A young woman goes to the island with a seed that was given her by her great uncle who had been stranded on the island.. He gave her several seed which she was never able to grow. Down to her last seed, she decides to try to grow it on the island of its origin.

The island seems to be forbidden or off-limits. The bird that transports her there refuses to land on the island. It drops the woman off without touching the earth. She grows the seed using pieces of her own body (at the request of the plant) which then produces a duplicate body, identical to the young woman's. A little like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the duplicate takes the place of the woman. It returns to civilization and lives a happy life, ironically. The woman is left stranded on the island.

The Island is a minor but likable fable. Joy San is an artist to watch.

The Worst by Molly Mendoza (Shortbox, 2016). Two girls, Sam and Jen, on a swim team are close friends. Jamie (I think) convinces Jen to drop Sam as a friend. We see this happening through the dialogue of two gossips, one of whom admits, "I'm only in it for the drama."

Mendoza's art is quite stylized and illustrational.It doesn't have standard comic book panel-to-panel progressions. Instead it is a series of images that more-or-less illustrates the drama of Sam and Jen as it unfolds. Lots of images of girls in pools in their one-piece swim-team bathing suits. She likes to draw the distortions of a body partly submerged in clear pool water.

Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll (Shortbox, February 2019). Emily Carrol specializes in somewhat disturbing fairy-tale-like stories. In this one, the characters are all wolf-like anthropomorphic figures. A young woman attends a party thrown by a man. The environment is one of wealth and finery, recalling perhaps the 18th century. The characters are never named.

The man is pale green and the woman is orange, and Carroll uses that to isolate the two in some of the party scenes. He asks her to join him beneath the Dead Oak Tree, which she declines to do. But curious, she follows him out there where she sees he has brought another young woman. Our heroine witnesses the man murdering the woman. She keeps this fact to herself (for some reason). The man continues his pursuit of her but never again asks her to go under the Dead Oak Tree. Eventually he asks her to marry him, and on their wedding night, she extracts a bloody revenge on him. It somewhat recalls the fairy tale of Bluebeard, except that Bluebeard murdered his wives. Here, being the man's wife seems to protect the woman.

The artwork is, like all of Carroll's art, elegant and lovely, but the story seems kind of a trifle. It strives for the universality of a fairy tale, but the motives seem obscure. Why does he murder? Why does she not tell anyone he is a murderer? How does he act with impunity? And why does she kill him in the end?

If I had to characterize Shirtbox comics on the basis of these three titles, it would be comics where the artwork if foregrounded over storytelling and plot. They are beautiful to look at.

One Dirty Tree by Noah Van Sciver (Uncivilized Books, 2018). I said Comicsgate would rear it's ugly head again, and it does quite obliquely here in One Dirty Tree. Noah Van Sciver is an extremely talented alternative cartoonist probably best known for his hilarious series of books about his poet-manque character who calls himself Fante Bukowski. One Dirty Tree is about his growing up in a run-down rental house in New Jersey. the street address was 133, and it had a dead tree in the front yard which lead one of his brothers to name it One Dirty Tree. He was from a Mormon family with 7 brothers and sisters, including Ethan Van Sciver, who has become one of the faces of Comicsgate. Ethan is a very talented artist who was quite successful for a while drawing mainstream superhero comic books. But he drifted over into far right politics and online harassment, burning many bridges. Noah never mentions this aspect of Ethan's life in the book, but he does depict Ethan as a budding comics artist creating his character Cyberfrog while still a teenager. Amazingly (or maybe not), Ethan is still trying to make a go of Cyberfrog, crowdfunding it to self-publish it. To me, these two brothers are exemplars of the difference between mainstream and alternative comics. Not because of Ethan's politics (although there has always been a whiff of the fascist in superhero comics), but in that Noah has advanced to a much more subtle and adult type of storytelling while Ethan, a 44 year-old man, is still drawing fucking Cyberfrog, a character he made up in high school.

But I didn't love this book, although it feels stronger on rereading. Even Noah has mixed feelings about it because he feels a little guilty about putting his mentally ill father down on the page (he said as much in an interview on the podcast The Comics Alternative). This is always the danger of doing autobiographical comics is that you may end up depicting people you know and love in ways they wouldn't necessarily want.

But what is appealing is how Noah switches back and forth in time with the kids in the 133 and the future when he is a young man full of self-doubt because he has chosen the spectacularly unremunerative career of alternative cartoonist. It makes him feel like he can't live up to his more conventionally employed girlfriend. I think this is a feeling many cartoonists (and artists) have felt.

Survive 300,000,000: Serpentine Captives by Pat Aulisio (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2018). I wrote about the first part of this series in an earlier post, and this is more of the same. The cyborg and his son Blaze have been captured and transported to Mars. The meet new allies and fight thier way to freedom. And I really don't care!

Our Wretched Town Hall by Eric Kostiuk Williams (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2018). This is a series of vignettes dealing with gay life in Toronto. What I noticed right away was how psychedelic the art was--it reminded me of certain comics artists from the 60s and 70s--Jim Steranko, for example, or  Frank Brunner when he was drawing Dr. Strange. It made me think for the first time about how queer that art was with it's art nouveau-inspired excesses.

The title story seems to refer to a dance club (whether the club is actually called "Our Wretched Town Hall" is not clear). But Williams makes a case for it being an other place, a kind of artificial home. "Together we've made this a home away from home where you can be free . . . fearless!"

Williams is an artsy guy--one of the stories is a tribute to a defunct art space called Videofag, and in another he draws and discusses David Wojnarowicz. And conflicts between gay and straight, conservative and flamboyant show up, as does the specter of turning from a twink to a twank. But what pulled me along was the extravagant artwork.

The New Yorker Cartoons by Johnny Ryan (Mirror Editions, 2018). This is a very unusual little book. I have no idea who Mirror Editions is. There is no information in the book. The design is very spare and elegant (the design is credited to "H. Patel"), which is in extreme contrast to the cartoons themselves. They take the form of classic New Yorker cartoons--an image and a caption, which is usually the words of a character is the image. Like New Yorker cartoons, the images are black and white, unframed so they float on a white background, and often feature a grey tone. This format is a signifier of polite, bourgeois wry humor; what Johnny Ryan does with the form is ironic. Ryan's comics are filthy and objectionable. Another cartoonist who has done similar deconstructions of the polite New Yorker-style cartoon is Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist who matches Ryan for filth but who not-so-secretly loves the New Yorker esthetic--he done very respectful comics about James Thurber and has even drawn covers for the New Yorker. It is impossible to imagine Johnny Ryan ever drawing a cover for the New Yorker. (Brunetti's New Yorker-style atrocities are collected into a very funny book called Ho!: The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti)

I think some of the funniest cartoons in this collection are about Nazis. The thing about Nazi-themed humor you have to ask yourself is, would a Nazi find it funny? If yes, then maybe it's beyond the pale. And in these two cases, Ryan certainly skates that line. Neither of these make fun of Nazis or satirize them.

However, the second one is most typical of the cartoons in this tiny volume. It makes fun of the fad for adding politics to ones artwork or entertainment product regardless of whether or not it works. It seems of the moment. And making the art stripping and the politics Nazism makes the idea of left wing art or Alt-right art seem, well, ridiculous. Which is what good satire does.

These cartoons were originally published on Ryan's Instagram feed, outlawscumfudge. Needless to say, it was always a race against time to see how long they would be up before the gnomes of Instagram deleted them. Thank God we still have books--a platform that is diffuse enough that they can't really be censored by a monolithic corporate master, like Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, etc.

I have a couple of more comics to write about, but I want to get this up in 2018. This is the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!