Category: Theory

Sunday: Critical Cartoons, See Carl Barks’ Weird Panel, Comics Continuum and More

duck_cover_400px   ed_vs_yummy_temp

In last week’s post I mentioned I’d write more about Carl Barks’ Duck by Peter Schilling Jr. (out now from Uncivilized Books). Well, I ended up writing about the Critical Cartoons series as a whole.

When I conceptualized the Critical Cartoons series for Uncivilized Books, I wanted to show the breadth of subjects that could be discussed in the series, and I wanted the first two books to exemplify the opposite ends of a spectrum…

comics-continuum-v1

The first book (Ed vs. Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When A Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel  by Brian Evenson) took on a key (and under appreciated) work from the comics underground: Yummy Fur by Chester Brown. Yummy Fur is scatological, sacrilegious and challenging. It was a way for Chester Brown to break down not only his inhibitions and beliefs, but also his approach to making comics. To date Yummy Fur has not been reprinted. The only part of Yummy Fur still in print is the collected (and heavily edited) Ed The Happy Clown. In other words this a relatively obscure work that for all it’s influence at the time of publication has been partially forgotten, and become difficult to track down. For me Yummy Fur and comics like it represents one side of the spectrum of the comics continuum. The lost and forgotten self published work, the minor masterpieces, hidden gems, significant early work (or ‘unusual’ late work) of great cartoonists… published by obscure small presses. I would be very happy if the Critical Cartoon series manages to bring some of them out into the light.

The second book, Carl Barks’ Duck, looks at Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories. Barks’ Donald Ducks could not be more different from Chester’s work. It’s a corporate product. All the characters and situations are owned wholesale by the Disney corporation. And yet Barks’ created an amazing array of stories and characters within that system. His contribution to comics is difficult to measure. He is one of the greats. His work has been almost continuously published around the globe and has influenced comics and cartooning everywhere (for example, Osamu Tezuka was hugely influenced by Barks’ work). Barks’ work represents the other side of the comics continuum: the corporate mainstream. Some are, like Barks’ comics, well documented, examined and easily available. Others were very popular in their time, but have become lost, or—if they are still currently published—changed beyond recognition (for example Captain Marvel / Shazam). Or, there are the occasional moments in time (1986) where artistic experimentation, audience expectations, and corporate willingness to take chances, results in a deluge of interesting work in the mainstream. Some of it (Dark Knight or Watchmen) goes on to influence and create whole new movement. Other (The Shadow or The Question) languish in relative obscurity. This is where many comics readers start. When I was younger (I grew up in Europe), I immersed myself in Marvel and DC universes, or the fantasy / science-fictional worlds of Thorgal, Valerian and Funky Koval… Or in the humor of Lucky Luke, Asterix and Kajko i Kokosz. Eventually I went on to discover (and create) comics closer to Yummy Fur in their sensibility. But this is where I started. There is a lot of work at this end of the spectrum.

For some reason I never got into the Disney comics, and consequently I didn’t encounter the work of Carl Barks until I was much older. Eventually, I became aware of his work, but it was always difficult to know where to start. Barks is a cartoonist whose work is so ubiquitous, beloved and prolific, that it’s hard to know where to start… especially for new readers. Should I read the best works? What are the best works? Are they really the best works? Should I try to read from the beginning? When I approached Peter Schilling Jr. About writing something for Critical Cartoons I was selfishly delighted that he wanted to write about Barks’ Donald Duck comics. Peter went on to write the perfect introduction to the work… and with Fantagraphics’ recent push to reprint all of Barks’ Duck comics, there’s now a perfect time to examine his work again.

Another goal with Critical Cartoons was trying to bring in new voices to comics criticism. Both of the authors (Evenson & Schilling Jr.) are big fans of comics, but in their careers have rarely (if ever) had to opportunity to write about them. I had a hunch that, given an opportunity something interesting might emerge. I was thrilled with Brian’s close reading of minutiae in Brown’s work starting with the dash placed between ‘graphic’ and ‘novel’ to form ‘graphic-novel’ (read this excerpt on TCJ) which subtitled the recent Ed the Happy Clown re-issue. I was also delighted how he unapologetically placed Brown’s work in the continuum of sacrilegious and scatological works that go back centuries.

I loved Peter’s comparison of Donald Duck stories to the classic Hollywood system, where stars like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart took on a variety of roles, but were often still distinct. Donald fits that bill (sorry)! I was also flabbergasted by the ‘weird’ panel (see below) from Lost in the Andes. It’s such an usual angle and I certainly haven’t seen Barks use it again elsewhere (at least in my limited familiarity with his work). Did he try it out, decide it wasn’t working, and didn’t use that angle again? Barks scholars… any insights?

barks-weird-panel

Now that the two inaugural volumes of Critical Cartoons are out, it’s time to look forward to next volumes. There are a few new Critical Cartoons project bubbling up. I’ll keep you posted as they develop. Thanks for reading!


In other news I have a new Twitter account: @BetaTestingTomK . Uncivilized Books started as a way to publish my own work. Until now I’ve conflated both identities… I was Uncivilized Books and vice versa. But the publishing house has evolved into something quite different and much larger than me. I don’t want to keep cluttering up the Uncivilized Books ( @unciv ) feed with weird thoughts, random ramblings, architectural drawings or strange theories (though you’ll probably get a bunch of that anyway). It’s time to have a new place for that stuff. If you’re interested in my work subscribe to @BetaTestingTomK or sign up for weekly updates on my new site (or both!)

Next week: Eel Mansions!

Soon: Progress report on Trans Terra: Towards a Cartoon Philosophy!

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Popeye vs Paul The Octopus

Popeye insulk by E.C. Segar
drawn by E. C. Segar

Graham Harman is one of my favorite living philosophers. I read his blog daily. So, it is with a very heavy heart that I must denounce this recent post: one of the most ridiculous polls ever conducted. I agree that the question polled, “Should a permanent shrine be erected in memory of Paul the Octopus?”, is ridiculous. It’s the off handed remark that mr. Harman makes after bringing attention to the poll that really chafes:

Should a “permanent shrine” be erected in honor of Popeye?

Why bring Popeye into it? Or, why not be more precise? Surely he doesn’t mean Popeye, star of Elzie Crisler Segar’s Thimble Theater, one of the finest American newspaper adventure comic-strips? Is it Popeye, the protagonist of the Fleisher Studio’s animated cartoons? Or, does he mean Popeye the character played by Robin William’s in Robert Altman’s film Popeye? It Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, the chain of fast food restaurants? Perhaps he means Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle the fictional detective from The French Connection?

Maybe he objects (no pun intended) to “permanent shrine” and not Popeye? Should it be a temporary shrine? Or maybe not a shrine at all but a monument? An obelisk? A pyramid? Which is it? I for one would endorse a “permanent shrine” to Popeye… especially if it were designed by Richard McGuire:

Popeye and Olive by Richard McGuire
'Popeye and Olive' by Richard McGuire

Comics Education: Understanding Comics

If you’re wondering, other posts on Comics Education are here: one, two, three, four, five.

Today I want to talk about comics in areas of study other than Art and specialized comics programs. English, Cultural Studies, and other programs have since the 90’s started to integrate the study of comics into the curriculum. When Art Spiegelman’s Maus was awarded the Pulitzer 1992 most rationales to ignore comics in the academy melted away. A year later Scott McCloud built on Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and released Understanding Comics. Whether you agree with McCloud’s thesis or not, the book quickly became a staple text for the academic world. It created a common language for talking and writing about comics. It was the perfect comics 101 text.

In my college experience (mid 90’s) I’ve taken many courses in the English and Cultural Studies departments. In both cases comics as object of study, or comics formatted assignments were welcomed with curiosity and open minds. My professors mostly didn’t have the critical apparatus to evaluate these projects, but at minimum they were interested in the medium. Almost all of them were at least somewhat familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s work. McLuhan famously included comic-books as an example of a ‘cool’ medium (meaning a low-definition medium requiring more conscious reader participation) in his pioneering book on media theory Understanding Media (1964).

Scott McCloud built on McLuhan’s media centric view, and introduced his own hot-to-cool continuum that was comics specific.

from understanding comics by scott mccloud

Of course, McCloud’s title Understanding Comics is a direct reference to McLuhan’s book. It’s an association that I’m sure helped open doors to the academy and cemented the book’s place as an essential text on comics.

This was my limited experience. I’m sure in other places comics weren’t as easily welcomed. Still, this reception was in stark contrast to way comics were received at the Art Dept.

Another potential reason for this relatively generous reception from literary academia resulted from the ‘comics as literature’ model that was dominant from the late 80’s to the present. The work of prominent cartoonists that emerged from that era: The Hernandez Brothers, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Seth, Chester Brown, Charles Burns and many others fits the literary approach (though, of course, not always and not entirely). This work was championed by The Comics Journal and it was this quality that was recognized by the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded to Spiegelman’s Maus. While all of these creators are no slouches in the art department, they all create works that are story driven and deal with many traditional literary concerns.

I want to briefly focus on Adrian Tomine. Adrian earned a degree in English from the University of California in the 90’s. (I wonder if Clowes’ Art School Confidential was in any way part of his decision to not go the art school route?) I can’t locate my TCJ interview with Adrian, but if I remember correctly, at that time he was concerned with learning solid storytelling. He felt he could learn more from say, Raymond Carver, than the average comic-book on the stands. Comics to him were a storytelling medium. Art, though clearly important, was subordinate to storytelling. That attitude is understandable. At the time Adrian attended school, well written comics were a minority (and still are). I’d be curious to know if Adrian he ever brought comics into the classroom and created comics as assignments.

This ‘literary’ component of comics is something that is often overlooked in comics education. The vast majority of comic-books are still stories that people read. But most schools (that I’m aware of) that taught comics focused on the art side of the equation. Students were taught the grammar of comics, clarity of layout, transitions, or simply how to draw or use the correct tools. But the quality of storytelling that was told using these techniques was often an afterthought. Courses on comics as object of study (as literature) have also been proliferating, but courses on comics writing are still relatively rare. This has begun to change since the turn of the century and it’s something I’ll go over in my next couple of posts.

Comics Education: Art School Confidential Addendum

comics journal 233 cover excerpt by Dan Clowes
Comics Journal #233 cover excerpt by Dan Clowes

This is a small addendum to the last post. Jason Overby & J.T. Dockery (via comments) reminded me of another later interview where Dan Clowes recanted his Gary Panter comments. I dug around in my Comics Journals and found the relevant quote:

One guy whose work I once said flippant, dismissive things about in an interview which I absolutely deeply regret, is Gary Panter. I think he’s the greatest artist in the world. At the time I had only read a few things of his and really sort of lumped him in with other lesser artists of the style. – The Comics Journal, issue 233, May 2001

I hope that the article doesn’t read in any way as disrespectful to Clowes. I just wanted to point out the attitudes that existed at the time (late 80’s & early 90’s – though they persist until today) and that even the best of us held some of these views. I’m certainly not immune. In the past I’ve practiced all kinds of wrong-headed anti-art stances.

Also, it should be mentioned that both of the interviews the Blab! #4 interview I mentioned and MUCH more are is collected in a new volume edited by Kent Worcester Ken Parille and Isaac Cates: Daniel Clowes: Conversations.