Sunday, November 30, 2008

From the vault: Unpopular Culture

Note: This review originally appeared in issue #284 of The Comics Journal.

“Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s”
by Bart Beaty
University of Toronto Press 320 pages, $29.95

I wasn’t surprised that Bart Beaty’s new book, Unpopular Culture would prove to be so readable. Anyone who’s followed Beaty’s reviews and essays in The Comics Journal, particularly his seminal Eurocomics for Beginners column back in the mid-1990s, ought to be well aware of how good a writer he can be. What did prove surprising to me is that a book so utterly and single-mindedly focused on the European market would actually have something to say, albeit in an indirect fashion, about American comics.

We Yanks tend to imagine the Europeans as being much more enlightened about the art of comics than our own countrymen could ever possibly hope to be. Why, they sell comics in honest-to-god bookstores over there! And not just in the science-fiction section! They write comics about detectives and other, alternative genres! Moebius is a celebrity! Surely Europe, or at least France and Belgium, is a cartoonist’s utopia! Reading Unpopular Culture will, if nothing else, clear that lie out of your mind once and for all.

Comics, Beaty argues, may be a popular medium in Europe, but there’s a big difference between being popular and being respected. The general European public, to say nothing of the intelligentsia, has largely regarded the medium as little more than kiddie fare for the past several decades. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when companies like L’Assocition and Fremok started publishing more art-driven, less genre-derived material, that comics started to be viewed less as some sort of bourgeois kitsch to foist on the dull-minded populace and more as a work of art in its own right, deserving of respect and acclaim.

And it is at this point bells should be going off in your brain if you know anything about the American art-comics movement of the past fifteen years or so. Despite the considerable geographic (and other) differences between the two groups, both seemed to come to prominence around the same period of time and share more than just a desire to overturn the status quo.

What exactly happened in the 1990s is the central thrust of Beaty’s book, and he meticulously goes over what he regards as seven key issues, drawing out examples from various publishers and individual artists to show how such a change came about.

It’s worth going over the individual chapters, not only to get a feel for how the book is laid out, but to also get back to some of those inevitable comparisons that keep cropping up. In the first chapter, Beaty shows how publishers like L’Association imposed a new aesthetic by deliberately setting itself apart from mainstream publishers like Dargaud and Humanoides. In the second, he discusses how many artists came to regard the comic book as an art object in its own right, both creating books whose very binding and choice of paper make the book want to be put on display instead of a shelf.

In the third he examines how the small press challenged itself by undergoing formal experiments like OuBaPo, and by transforming the mixture of text and art in unprecedented ways that in some cases stretch at the very definition of what a comic is or should be.

The rest of the book follows along similar lines. He discusses how autobiography has been used as a way for artists to declare themselves as separate from other, more popular genres. He looks at how the small-press comics movement has developed differently across the European continent. He talks about how indie artists like Joann Sfar have been absorbed into the mainstream comics publishing empire. And then he sums the whole shebang up in a winning final chapter by examining the career of Lewis Trondheim, who, as Beaty makes clear, embodies more of the changes that have gone on in European comics in the past decade and a half than any other artist.

In a wider sense, Unpopular Culture is really about the constant and continual pull between market forces and artistic choices; between the avant-garde and whatever accounts for the mainstream at any given point of time. It’s about how the avant-garde and small press define themselves by what they are not instead of what they are, thereby transforming the culture, becoming subsumed by it, and leaving the door open for another avant-garde movement to take its place.

These are issues that every art form, from cinema to prose, deal with on an almost day-to-day basis and it’s certainly not something which American comics are immune from. That being said, aside from the occasional mention of Julie Doucet or Craig Thompson, Beaty stays clear away from discussing American comics, leaving readers to draw their own inferences.

That’s probably for the best, as doing so would open another very large can of worms, but it’s hard not to think about how these issues affect American artists while reading the book.

One issue that doesn’t seem to be as strong on these shores as Beaty seems to describe in his book is the line of demarcation between the U.S. mainstream and the alternative movement. While cartoonists like Dylan Horricks and Gilbert Hernandez (not to mention Ed Brubaker) have written superhero stories for the big two, it’s hard to see any one creator in the art-comix movement moving back and forth with the ease that Trondheim does. The superhero market is just too narrow a genre to accommodate most alt-cartoonists’ unique idiosyncrasies and individual art styles.

Of course, for a long time Marvel and DC were regarded as THE ENEMY, but I wonder if that’s true anymore. The true enemy of publishers like Fantagraphics (or at least rival for their affections) may be mainstream book publishers like Pantheon and Houghton Mifflin since they’ve snatched up authors like Thompson and Kim Deitch by dangling the promise of greater financial reward in front of them. Chris Ware’s ability to shift from the mainstream book world to small indie houses like Drawn and Quarterly perhaps prove a better allusion to Trondheim’s successes than Horricks’ run on Batgirl does.

Of course, perhaps the most notable difference is that in America we largely see Deitch’s getting a book deal as a good thing, and not a betrayal of all we hold dear. It’s hard to imagine Chris Oliveros writing something akin to Jean-Christopher Menu’s Plates-Bandes (which Beaty discusses at length), railing at the mainstream market for trying to co-opt the small press.

I said Unpopular Culture was readable and it is. But it has a decided academic tome and readers expecting something more akin to the relaxed and occasionally snarky prose Beaty utilized in the pages of The Comics Journal may well trip over some of the meatier sentences.

Overall, Unpopular Culture is a superb, insightful and, I believe, seminal book that will undoubtedly be referenced again and again when talking not just about European comics, but art-comics in general. Obviously the more familiar you are with the works referenced, the more you’ll able to get out of the book (I’m not ashamed to say I was thrilled whenever a comic I owned was mentioned, as though I was a member of some secret club). But you don’t have to have Beaty’s level of experience and knowledge to appreciate the issues that he’s raising. Or enjoy the way he raises them.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Graphic Lit: Bad meaning good

“My kid could draw that!”

No doubt you’ve heard that phrase spouted at a modern art gallery once or twice. Perhaps you’ve even uttered it yourself, along with a snarky, “That’s not art.”

We tend to have set-in-stone notions about what constitutes art, and can get riled up when confronted with something that doesn’t meet our expectations.

Comics fans in particular can be a conservative lot, trumpeting the ability to render a contorted, physically perfect human specimen above all else.

But does a high degree of artistic skill and craftsmanship automatically result in the ability to make great comics? After all, comics are as much about pacing, timing and narrative dexterity as they are being able to make pretty pictures.

Take the case of Rory Hayes, for example. Hayes was a member of the underground comics movement of the 1960s, though he tends to get relegated to the background, behind more well-known figures such as Robert Crumb.

Hayes is finally getting his due in “Where Demented Wented,” a collection of his work from Fantagraphics Books edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray.

Part of the reason Hayes slipped under the radar was because he wasn’t as prolific as his compatriots. Nor did he have their artistic chops; his art, at least initially, comes off as amateurish and stiff. His early death, at the age of 34 in 1983, no doubt played a part as well.

But probably the biggest reason he never achieved much recognition was due to the intensity and stark horror of his unique vision. Here was an artist who gazed into the abyss and drew what he saw.

Hayes’ initial comics were gory homages to the EC horror comics of the 1950s, usually featuring knife-wielding teddy bears plotting horrible things.

The turning point seems to be his attempt to do a sex comic. Hayes used the opportunity to pour out every misogynist and misanthropic fear that welled inside him, resulting in the most unerotic (and just flat out grotesque) pornography in history.

From there on out, Hayes’ comics become more psychedelic and narratively disjointed, but also more gripping and fascinating. Panels blend into one another; stories end in abrupt violence, bodies mutate and transform, heralding the apocalypse.

There’s the strong sense of exorcism at work here, that Hayes was driven to put this material on paper, perhaps hoping that by giving his demons voice he could silence them.

That didn’t work. Hayes eventually died of a drug overdose, as the heart-breaking afterword by Hayes’ brother Geoffrey (also an artist), reminds us.

Hayes’ work is not easy to digest or what we tend to traditionally think of as accomplished. But it is visionary and compelling all the same. The guy knew what he was doing.

While some cartoonists make art out of the meager talents God gave them, others strive to deliberately be as sloppy and crude as possible.

That’s certainly the case with “Tokyo Zombie,” an uproarious, grotesque manga by Yusaku Hanakuma.

Hanakuma is a member of the “Heta-Uma” or “bad, but good” school. Popularized by Japanese artist King Terry, it’s a movement dedicated to drawing as primitively as possible, the better to keep any technical gloss from removing your work’s “soul.”

As you might guess from the title, “Tokyo Zombie” is a horror story, albeit with rotting tongue held firmly in cheek.

Fujio and Mitsuo are martial arts-addicted tough guys who suddenly find themselves having to kick-punch their way out of a zombie apocalypse brought on by industrial waste buried in a literal mountain of garbage.

Circumstances force the pair to separate. Fast forward a few years. Fujio finds himself battling zombies in an arena for the pleasure of the wealthy few who control. What are the odds a zombiefied Mitsuo could show up to battle his old friend? Apparently pretty good.

As gory and profoundly silly as “Zombie” is, it’s also a heap of fun, provided you don’t take these sorts of things too seriously. Indeed, hard to imagine a more proficient artist being able to mine as much gold with the material as Hanakuma does here. His art may seem sloppy and primitive at first glance, but it’s always assured.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Graphic Lit: Bat-Manga!

Back in 1966 the world was in the grip of an unstoppable force. Batman-fever.

The beloved, campy TV show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, had transfixed not only America but other countries across the globe, perhaps most surprisingly Japan.

So popular was the caped crusader in the Land of the Rising Sun that Jiro Kuwata, co-creator of the “8 Man” superhero manga and cartoon show, was asked to create some Batman stories for young Japanese readers.

Though Kuwata’s other work is fondly remembered in his native country, these long were thought to have been lost to history. In fact, they were so obscure that Batman’s publisher, DC Comics, wasn’t even aware of their existence.

Enter editor, author and book designer Chip Kidd who, along with collector Saul Ferris, discovered their existence via eBay and set about trying to collect as many of these comics as they could find.

“I had known for many years about Japanese Batman toys from the ’60s, but until about 10 years ago I had absolutely no idea they did their own comics too,” Kidd said. “When I became aware of that I became really, really interested in them.”

That interest has led to “Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan,” an oversized coffee-table book that translates and collects a handful of Kuwata’s stories.

“As a Batman fan who was born in 1964 and grew up with the late ’60s version, to me it was like being a Beatles fan and discovering six new songs,” said Kidd. “These really have a genuine spirit and sense of fun to them that I remember of Batman and Robin back then.”

The stories are both familiar and alien. Kuwata isn’t terribly concerned with mining the traditional Batman mythos or the camp nature of the TV show. There’s no Joker or Penguin here. Or Alfred, Batgirl or Batcave for that matter, although Commissioner Gordon does put in a cameo appearance.

What we get instead are stripped-down but nonetheless thrilling tales of Batman and a noticably younger Robin facing off against some truly noteworthy villains.

As with the traditional Western version, its the villains who make the comic, and “Bat-Manga” features some doozies, such as Professor Gorilla, Go-Go the Magician, Lord Death Man and Dr. Faceless, a disfigured scientist who hates smiling faces so much he even destroys clocks.

“Part of what I like about [the manga] is that, while it is a novelty and the novelty factor is large, [Kuwata] is a really good cartoonist. It’s just beautifully drawn stuff,” Kidd said.

Where Kuwata really shines are in the action sequences, where the dynamic duo leap and swing their way across the page in a truly dizzying fashion.

“There’s this wonderful juxtoposition of whimsy and really eerie, weird scary stuff,” Kidd said. “The fight scenes are truly invigorating.”

Since a lot of this material was tough to find (only two of the stories in the book are complete), Kidd and company opted to simply photograph the pages as is (i.e. yellowed and printed with different colored inks) than clean them up via a scanner.

“I very much wanted to replicate the experience of actually paging through these books,” he said. “When you see a lot of the way vintage manga is collected both in Japan and states, they reduce it to black and white on a crisp white page, and I think that takes away from original experience.”

Though the Batman craze didn’t last long in Japan and Kuwata moved on to other material, he still, as Kidd notes, “did a ton of stuff in a short period of time.”

More than enough, he hints, for a second volume.

Keep your bat-fingers crossed.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

VG review: Guitar Hero World Tour

Activision, for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360 and Wii. Rated T for Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes), Prices from $49.99 to $189.99.

It seems unfair to accuse “Guitar Hero World Tour” — the latest sequel in the uber-popular video game franchise — of jumping on the “Rock Band” bandwagon.

At the same time, however, there’s no question that it’s taken more than one page from that book. The formerly guitar-only game now allows up to four people to form a virtual band and play drums, vocals and bass as well as lead guitar. Even little tweaks, such as being able to extend your “star power,” seem directly lifted from its competitor.

Unfortunately, some of the things that make “Rock Band” so enjoyable aren’t present here. The basic “Guitar Hero” experience remains intact and fans of the series will have fun, but many of the new additions seem unnecessary or flawed.

Perhaps the best thing about “World Tour” is the excellent soundtrack, which features well-known tunes by folks like Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Jimmy Eat World, the Eagles and many others.

There are a few head-scratchers though. I’ll be hornswoggled if I can figure out what the heck Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” is doing here. Especially when the drum track consists of rapidly hitting the same drum over and over again ad nauseum.

Before I talk more about the new instruments, I should mention some of the guitar’s new features. It now boasts a “slider bar” along the neck, and when special transparent buttons appear on the screen, you can slide your finger up and down the neck instead of hitting the strum bar. It’s not as accurate a method though, and results in a lot of missed notes and frustration.

The drum kit adds an extra two pads to “Rock Band’s” four. They’re nice and feel more like a real kit, but they’re also a bit quirky. I had to hit them really hard to get them to react and they were very, very loud, making it difficult at times to hear the song.

(To Activision’s credit, it has made a drum tuner available for download. Unfortunately for Mac users like myself, it’s PC only.)

There are other problems. The menu interface isn’t the best, especially in the band section. It’s hard to tell when you’re playing with friends how well they’re doing. And you can’t bring other players back from failure using star power the way you can in “Rock Band.”

The most notable addition in “World Tour” is the ability to use the instruments to record your own tunes and upload them to the Internet. Though it offers a rich variety of tools to mess with, the interface is far from intuitive and you can’t record your own voice or lyrics, making the endeavor somewhat lackluster.

Still, “Guitar Hero” offers enough thrills and boasts a strong enough soundtrack to provide enough rock for your buck. There’s little question, however, that “Rock Band” is victor in the battle of the music games. At least for now.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: On comic books and the bad economy

Is the comic book dead?

Not comics the artistic medium; that’s never been better.

No, I’m talking about the comic book pamphlet. You know, 32 pages, glossy cover, staples in the middle, comes out on a monthly (or semi-monthly) basis? I’m talking about the physical, periodical format.

Is it dying?

That’s the question that came to my mind while reading “Love and Rockets: New Stories,” the latest collection of work by indie cartoonists Jamie, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez.

For decades, the brothers have serialized their stories in pamphlets before collecting them into trade paperbacks. Now, however, in an attempt to expand their reach into book stores, the publisher Fantagraphics has rebooted the series as an annual, 112-page graphic novel.

“It’s not eliminating the comic shop at all but just opening it up to book stores and any place that can rack books,” said Fantagraphics Director of Promotions Eric Reynolds, “We could have kept [publishing it as a pamphlet], but we saw the way the books sell relative to periodicals and it was kind of a no-brainer.”

(By the way “New Stories” is a fantastic collection. Gilbert and Jamie are at the top of their form.)

The format change signals a shift of some sort in my mind. There was a time, say, 15 years ago, when you could go into a comic book store on a weekly basis and had a wealth of indie titles to choose from.

Now, most of those creators have either abandoned the medium entirely or moved to a “graphic novel only” strategy.

“For [‘Love and Rockets’] to switch to book format is a vote of no confidence from guys who were there first in alt-comics market,” said Tom Spurgeon, who runs the Comics Reporter Web site.

But is this change exclusive to the small-press scene or will it affect larger publishers as well?

I’m not the only one who’s been asking this question. In a recent interview, Dark Horse (publisher of “Hellboy”) CEO Mike Richardson said “As far as pamphlets — especially with what I see happening with the economy — as much as we all love them, the traditional comic book is going to be harder and harder to sell, and harder and harder to make work.”

Here are a few reasons:

An aging fan base. Despite the popularity of films like “Dark Knight,” comic books seem to appeal to a largely older, male readership and there aren’t a lot of new readers coming in.

Emphasis on event-driven titles. Right now, big crossover events like “Final Crisis” and “Secret Invasion” are climbing up the sales charts. But how many times can you return to that “everything changes” well before readers get bored?

The economy. People like to say that comics do well in recessions, but if gas prices go up again or the economy worsens, will fans have to choose between heading to the comic store every week to get the latest issue of “Trinity” versus a trip to the grocery store?

Rising prices. Comics aren’t really disposable entertainment any more. Your average issue runs about $3-$4, and there’s every chance that price could rise even higher.

I called a number of local stores to see if the worsening economy had affected them or if they had seen a movement away from periodicals towards graphic novels and trade collections.

Most of them said that while they may have lost a customer or two, they haven’t experienced any significant drop in sales.

“Pamphlet sales have been up every year for the last six-seven years, even though prices are going up,” said Bill Wahl of Comix Connection in Mechanicsburg, noting that sales of graphic novels also have increased.

“The people who have money or credit are still spending. People living paycheck to paycheck are cutting back,” said Bob Newbury of Cosmic Comics in Harrisburg.

More significantly, several of them noted that superhero fans in particular felt the need to keep up with their favorite series on a weekly basis.

“We sell 40-50 copies of ‘X-Men’ but not a single graphic novel. Fans still want ‘X-Men’ on a weekly basis. There’s not a person waiting to buy it after the story arc is done,” said Ralph Watts of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra.

And what would the death of the periodical mean for comics shops?

“What I tell people is the day that happens, we’re all done. There will be no more comic book stores,” said Newbury. “We need that repeat business.”

If you’re DC or Marvel, the periodical remains a viable publishing format, though that’s not necessarily the case for other publishers or genres (DC’s Vertigo line, for example, seems to sell much better in trade than pamphlet).

If this trend continues, or if longtime fans are forced to make tough economic choices, the traditional comic book format may go the way of the blacksmith and long-playing record.

“Just because something’s outmoded doesn’t mean it should be abandoned,” Spurgeon said. “I hope they don’t abandon it. There’s still money to be made.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

VG review: Little Big Planet

Sony, for PlayStation 3, rated E for Everyone (comic mischief, cartoon violence), $59.99.

Few games knock down the wall between developer and player as effectively as “Little Big Planet,” Sony’s big-ticket PlayStation 3 title for the holiday season, does.

Sure, lots of other games have offered the chance to manipulate and create your own virtual environment, but I’ve never seen it done as skillfully as it is here. This is one of the most creative and downright attractive video games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.

At its heart, “Little Big Planet” is a platformer akin to “Super Mario Bros.” and all the other little games that involve hopping around on objects and jumping on the heads of bad guys.

Here, you play as an adorable cloth doll known as Sackboy. Sackboy (or girl if you prefer) can run, jump and grab certain items but that’s about it. You don’t gain any special abilities as the game progresses.

What you do get is a vibrant, photorealistic world made out of cardboard, cloth, string, switches and just about any other material you can find in real life. More than any game I’ve played before, “Planet” has an almost tactile feel to it, as though I could reach out and touch the objects displayed on my screen.

Beyond the look and feel, though, the levels are inspired in their high degree of creativity and challenge. Many times I’d come across a puzzle or objective that would astonish me in its clever design and frustrate me (in a good way) with its difficulty.

The main story section is regrettably short, though there’s a lot of replayability through the collection of hidden clothes, stickers and other objects.

That’s OK though, because the upside is that you can use those objects to create your own levels in the “My Moon” area. Using a suite of PhotoShoplike tools you can make a level that’s hindered only by your imagination.

The tools system is easy and intuitive to manipulate, although the amount of material you have at your disposal is a bit overwhelming, and developing a level that people want to play will take some time and effort on your part.

The good news is you can get other people to try out your levels via the Internet. Unfortunately, Sony’s servers were down just about the entire time I was playing the game, but if they come up soon, I can see this being a big part of the game, with fans uploading, sharing and grading their favorite player-created content.

My only quibble with the game is that Sackboy doesn’t move around as easily as he’s supposed to. Getting from the foreground to the background (and vice versa) can take repeated tries, and the character doesn’t exactly stop on a dime, which can be treacherous when you’re maneuvering across some high, narrow platforms.

Just about every aspect of “Little Big Planet” is pitch-perfect, from the infectious music to the mulitplayer sections to the tutorials narrated by actor Stephen Fry. It’s a joyous, infectious world that I hope to spend lots of time exploring in the near future.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Graphic Lit: The big debut

There’s something about the big debut, that new comic or graphic novel from a budding cartoonist suggesting great promise, that gets people (myself included) all fired up.

Of course, not every artist manages to capitalize on all that initial goodwill, but for those who do, it’s worthwhile to go back and re-examine their initial forays.

Take Scott McCloud, for example.

Before he became renowned for books like “Understanding Comics,” McCloud was best known for his superhero series “Zot!”

The comic centered around the titular hero, a carefree teen from another, futuristic dimension, and his relationship with Jenny, a decidedly more pessimistic girl from our Earth.

The new “Complete Black and White Collection” collects the later half of Zot’s saga (McCloud apparently not being terribly satisfied with its initial full-color run) into one brick-sized book.

Reading the series, you can see McCloud constantly experimenting, taking elements of mainstream comics, the burgeoning indie scene and manga (still new and strange back then) and trying to digest them to form his own style.

The first half of the book is mostly set in Zot’s world and is full of fun, zany, dramatic adventures.

Halfway through, McCloud abandons the superhero stuff almost entirely, focusing instead on Jenny and her friends and their everyday lives.

Combining freewheeling sci-fi tropes (robot butlers, flying cars) with realistic, fully developed characters, “Zot!” helped point the way toward comics’ full potential, a trail McCloud would blaze more fully a few years later with “Understanding Comics.”

Another series that initially dealt with superheroes only to change halfway through was “Demo,” which initially attempted to tell slice-of-life stories about teens and twentysomethings coming to terms with their burgeoning supernatural powers.

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan then abandoned that tack in favor of exploring young people at crossroads in their lives, be it the end of a relationship or wising up to the fact that it’s time to grow up and get a real job.

Wood and Cloonan made their mark with these smart, well-grounded, emotionally involving tales, and while they’ve done great work since, I’m not entirely sure they’ve done anything that’s surpassed their early work.

But while we might look fondly at “Demo” and “Zot!” with the benefit of hindsight, stellar debuts are far from a thing of the past.

Witness “Swallow Me Whole,” a new graphic novel by Nate Powell. I’m not kidding when I say this book knocked me for a loop.

“Swallow” tells the tale of two teenage stepsiblings, brother and sister, each with different mental problems (the brother displays signs of schizophrenia, while the sister has a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Powell’s tale unfolds in a relaxed fashion as the pair trudge their way through school, deal with family and try to cope with their problems.

Eventually, one sibling starts to get better while the other, tragically, does not.

Powell displays a poetic gift for visual metaphor here, articulating the kids’ illnesses with some deft imagery.

He also has an ear for realistic dialogue and situations (a cringeworthy incident at school, for example, seems particularly drawn from life).

In short, “Swallow Me Whole” is a fantastic book. Keep your eye on this Powell kid. He’s going places.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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