Guest columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” – Mark Twain, author’s introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A couple of years back, I had the unenviable task of leading a discussion with a group of seasoned comic artists in which I was defending the position that sequential art does not need to follow a narrative. I was up against giants of the field like Sergio Aragonés, Bill Morrison and William Stout. What I proposed was borderline blasphemy to some in the room: that you can do something BESIDES tell a story with comics. And to make matters worse – I am not a professional illustrator. I can’t even draw a decent stick figure. But I am a student of art and I firmly believe that as with film and writing, the assumption that any art form is but a vehicle for “story” is wholly wrongheaded. Poets have proven this for centuries, using words not to convey a series of comprehensible acts with a summary resolution, but merely singing (or screaming) in strange places. The 20th century brought narrative in literature to its knees when the likes of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner introduced stream of consciousness prose. And I won’t even get into James Joyce. Non-narrative film is a bit more esoteric. Many people have great difficulty with the works of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner. I sure did when I was first exposed to them. But eventually, my need to challenge my mind and surprise my senses got the best of me. And so it is with comics.
Sam Hiti is one of my favorite independent comic book creators. Diligently self-publishing everything from horror to far-out sci-fi, his rugged and expressive style is always an eye-grabber. With his sketchbook collection, Ghoulash, he offers a window into a period of inky drawings which seem grown from a series of mythic and hellish visions. He makes no pretenses as to any order in the images. Aztec gods, bizarre undead figures, voluptuous femme fatales, even the visage of John Rambo all flow from one page to the next, as if compiling some impossible-to-follow fantasy action film. I doubt Hiti would admit any reasoning for the sequence of the images, and surely they make no comprehensive sense as a “story” – and yet I can’t shake the feeling that not only do these pictures all go together VERY organically, I feel even more sure that there is, at least, an unconscious motive in the grouping. After putting it down, I definitely feel like I’ve been to a real place, that something happened, but it is ineffable. I am not a fan of most sketchbooks, they are usually meant for completist uber-fans or fellow travelers studying technique. What Hiti delivers here compels me to believe his psyche really was in this series of happenings, his hand drew it, and the whole block of pages together may as well be a slide show of a vacation to the darker parts of his mind. And I love it.
An altogether different sort of sketchbook – which may in fact be a very deliberate work pretending to be a sketchbook – is Do It Yourself Doodler by David Jablow (published by AdHouse Books this September). More lighthearted, this very interesting entry from last year is actually more of a game for your mind in the form of comics. Jablow’s formula is very simple: he issues page after page with the same female figure in the same position, resting on the same part of the page. The thing is, each page is a totally different scene. On one, our protagonist is floating in space, in another she is a cowgirl riding a bucking bull, on another, she is a riveter working on a skyscraper. If it sounds boring – it really isn’t. I rarely use the term “clever” as a compliment, but Jablow plays against our expectations very cleverly indeed, pranking us with his seemingly effortless jaunts around a static character. The result is a dynamic and fun journey through a pan-genre landscape of recognizable pop culture milieus, employing humor and graced with excellent draftsmanship. Jablow really has taken a rather mundane doodle and transposed it through the many worlds comics readers find themselves in so often. His is an enjoyable experiment, not the least bit pretentious, and with great reverence of the history of the art form for good measure.
I save Pim & Francie for last because I hate talking about it. It scares me. No, that’s not right – it shakes me DEEPLY, to the soul, brings into the light the worst of fears. The great Al Columbia’s compilation of sketches – not to be confused with a sketchbook compilation – amounts to the graphic interpretation of nightmare. Not in the classical sense, mind you. There’s no particular situation, no old legend, no blood and guts. That’s not what nightmares are. Nightmares are those experiences where menacing figures you can’t understand stalk you, where the floor you are walking on dissolves like mist under your feet exposing you to the abyss, where a child’s idyllic image of the world has that one bit of corrupted stage prop, where the veil of reality becomes thin all too quickly, disorienting the dreamer instantly, dizzying, and all the while, death and worse is close behind. Your worst nightmares never make sense, you just know they are terrible. The visual information can’t add up, adding to the unknowable fear. Columbia uses exacting skill to take your eyes there. In one panel, children look out a window, where the background is in bold ink, but their legs and feet and the floorboards are thinly sketched in pencil. Which might not matter, except that something terrible is approaching the house and their only possible sanctuary is disappearing. A walk through the woods includes malevolent plants and flowers. A four-armed creature wielding knives with an uncannily seductive smile keeps popping up on random pages, often lurking too close to the children. That’s Columbia’s mastery. He knows how to take the symbols of comfort and joy – the kids, a smile, a flower – and put just the right touch on them to pervert the feeling they convey. His style goes a step further, employing the stamp of early comic strips like Thimble Theatre and The Katzenjammer Kids – even perhaps Buster Brown. The touchstone of that bygone era of early comics, where the magic was used to delight, makes the distorted landscape all the more terrible. What we end up with is a map of lost innocence, or perhaps a guidebook to just how terrifying the ignorant world of childhood can be. It’s a long book, and it offers no redemption or respite. Just like a nightmare, you have to awaken from it: it has to just end. It’s a true masterpiece from a genuinely disturbed mind and it shocks me even to recall it…
There are no stories here. You have to end such expectations if you wish to seek the next level of artistic consciousness. What is communicated in the end is something far more sublime than any narrative can deliver: experience. These works put you in a place with no guide but your eyes and mind. You don’t have the luxury of being told what to think, what to feel. You have the privilege of discovering something wholly other, relying on your wits alone. Folks like Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Van Gough and Frieda Kahlo did this for us in the realm of painting. I invite you to follow that same path which these great comics have laid out for us as well.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of September 30 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.
The first and only illustrated biography of “The Man in Black”, Johnny Cash, the most famous country singer of all time.
Cash was a 17-time Grammy winner who sold more than 90 million albums in his lifetime and became an icon of American music in the 20th century. Graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist depicts Johnny Cash’s eventful life from his early sessions with Elvis Presley (1956), through the concert in Folsom Prison (1968), his spectacular comeback in the 1990s, and the final years before his death on September 12, 2003.
The author’s site has a preview (although the final lettering is missing). I love that image of Cash in the recording studio.
The innovative, dramatic graphic novel based on the life of the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.
This brilliantly illustrated tale of reason, insanity, love and truth recounts the story of Bertrand Russell’s life. Raised by his paternal grandparents, young Russell was never told the whereabouts of his parents. Driven by a desire for knowledge of his own history, he attempted to force the world to yield to his yearnings: for truth, clarity and resolve.
As he grew older, and increasingly sophisticated as a philosopher and mathematician, Russell strove to create an objective language with which to describe the world – one free of the biases and slippages of the written word. At the same time, he began courting his first wife, teasing her with riddles and leaning on her during the darker days, when his quest was bogged down by paradoxes, frustrations and the ghosts of his family’s secrets. Ultimately, he found considerable success – but his career was stalled when he was outmatched by an intellectual rival: his young, strident, brilliantly original student, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
An insightful and complexly layered narrative, Logicomix reveals both Russell’s inner struggle and the quest for the foundations of logic. Narration by an older, wiser Russell, as well as asides from the author himself, make sense of the story’s heady and powerful ideas. At its heart, Logicomix is a story about the conflict between pure reason and the persistent flaws of reality, a narrative populated by great and august thinkers, young lovers, ghosts and insanity.
The Amazon.com link above has previews and the Bloomsbury link above has three-part making-of video series on YouTube, but there’s also an excellent website at Logicomix.com with behind-the-scenes info, a preview trailer and lots of other info. This debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List and is getting excellent reviews.
Mickey Mouse & Friends #296 – $2.99
By Stefano Ambrosio & Lorenzo Pastrovicchio
32 pages; published by Boom! Kids
First BOOM! Kids issue! One of the longest-lived, most-successful comic book series in the industry’s history comes to BOOM! and brings a little magic — presenting Wizards of Mickey! Student of the great wizard Grandalf, Mickey Mouse hails from the humble village of Miceland. Allying himself with Donald Duck (who has a pet dragon named Fafnir) and team mate Goofy, Mickey’s come to the great tournament to get his revenge on Peg Leg Pete, who has stolen the Rain Crystal from Miceland! Join Mickey Mouse and his friends on an epic tale of magic and wonder! Join BOOM! Kids for a whole new epoch in Disney publishing!
Disney comic books have been missing from the market place for about a year now. This is an imported story, which has been a pretty standard practice for previous publishers of Disney comics. It was originally done in Italy but from the looks of this preview, the translation holds up pretty nicely.
The first winner of Zuda Comics’ monthly online competition, HIGH MOON is a horror adventure of cowboys and werewolves in the Old West. HIGH MOON begins with a gruff bounty hunter, Matthew Macgregor, investigating a series of strange happenings in the dusty town of Blest, Texas. While Macgregor seeks to uncover the town’s dark secrets, he tries desperately to keep his own hidden.
The horrors of Blest ripple out to the mountainous town of Ragged Rock, Oklahoma, where another detective investigates a series of murders following a bizarre train robbery. Uncovering an age-old vendetta, this mysterious lawman is forced to do battle with a steam-driven monstrosity.
Macgregor’s tale concludes as a young woman’s dire call for assistance leads him through the Black Hills of South Dakota and into devastating battle between two warring factions. Macgregor must face down the United States government – only to discover a secret ritual that spells the destruction of the American frontier.
It’s such a relief when someone you personally know releases something, and you can be genuinely complimentary of what they’ve produced. While David Gallaher and I have “virtually” known each other for years, I’m happy to say that his web-comic holds up nicely as a thrilling horror/western mash-up. You can read it for yourself right here. And then there’s this production blog for good behind-the-scenes goodies.
A crime fighter is genetically engineered to be a super-hero – but when the test goes awry and he doesn’t have the super-hero qualities needed, he has to be teamed up with a former CIA agent who is the brains behind the duo. One gets all the glory while one has all the power.
I’ve always thought that it was a bit weird that every super-hero just instantly has what it takes, mentally and emotionally, to actually be a superhero. I guess I’m not alone. Probably not one for the kiddies.
The Dynamite link above has a 9-page preview so you have a better idea of just what you’re getting into by entering one of Howard Chaykin’s worlds.
Prison Pit is an original graphic novel from the pen of Johnny Ryan, best known for his humor comic, Angry Youth Comix. Prison Pit represents a marked departure from AYC or his Blecky Yuckerella weekly comic strip, combining his love for WWE wrestling, Gary Panter’s “Jimbo” comics, and Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” Manga into a brutal showcase of violence, survival and revenge. Imagine a blend of old-fashioned role playing fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons crossed with contemporary adult video games like Grand Theft Auto, filtered through Ryan’s sense of humor.
The book begins with C.F. (his full-name would be too horrifying to reveal here) being thrown into the Prison Pit, a barren negative-zone populated by intergalactic, violent monster criminals. In this first volume, C.F. gets into a bloody slorge war (a slorge is a giant slug that excretes a steroid-like drug called “fecid” that all the monster men are addicted to) with ultraprisoner Rottweiler Herpes and his henchmen Rabies Bloodbath and Assrat. The ensuing bloodbath is an over-the-top, hyperviolent yet hilarious farce worthy of Ryan’s inspiration, Kentaro Miura.
If Howard Chaykin is too much for you, you’ll never be able to handle Johnny Ryan, who is maniacally funny in the absurdly over-the-top violence. Here’s a PDF file preview.
The world is dying. After most of the city succumbed to the plague, Welton’s staying inside — permanently. But hiding in his claustrophobic basement room — the only place he knows is safe — exacts a gruesome price, and he becomes part of a collective that’s killing children. Infected with the plague himself, with no way to find the woman he loves, Welton takes refuge in apathy — until someone knocks on his door.
Ball Peen Hammer gives us a window into life in a half-deserted apartment building in a time of raw love, sacrifice, fear, and death.
This one is a bit more serious but also not for the weak at heart. Here’s a 13-page preview.
Fathers, sons, and the war that comes between them.
There’s nothing Josh, Cody, and Gordon want more than their fathers home safely from the war in Iraq — unless it’s to get out of their dead-end town. Refresh, Refresh is the story of three teenagers on the cusp of high school graduation and their struggle to make hard decisions with no role models to follow; to discover the possibilities for the future when all the doors are slamming in their faces; and to believe their fathers will come home alive so they can be boys again.
The above says enough to get me hooked. But for more, here’s an 11-page preview.
Trotsky was a hero to some, a ruthless demon to others. To Stalin, he was such a threat that he warranted murder by pickax. This polarizing figure set up a world conflict that lasted through the twentieth century, and in Trotsky: A Graphic Biography, the renowned comic artist Rick Geary uses his distinct style to depict the stark reality of the man and his times. Trotsky’s life becomes a guide to the creation of the Soviet Union, the horrors of World War I, and the establishment of international communism as he, Lenin, and their fellow Bolsheviks rise from persecution and a life underground to the height of political power. Ranging from his boyhood in the Ukraine to his fallout with Stalin and his moonlight romance with Frida Kahlo, Trotsky is a stunning look at one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers and the far-reaching political trends that he launched.
Rick Geary does excellent work. Unfortunately I can’t find a preview but just imagine looking at something really impressive that compels you to buy it.
Now in its fourth year, Best American Comics showcases the work of both established and up-and-coming contributers. Editor Charles Burns—cartoonist, illustrator, and official cover artist of the Believer—has culled the best stories from graphic novels, pamphlet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics, and the web to create this cutting-edge collection. Featuring the work of such luminaries as Chris Ware, KAZ, and Robert Crumb, this volume is “a genuine salute to comics” (Houston Chronicle).
This is a highly acclaimed yearly anthology that provides a great sampling of the depth and art of comics. Here’s the book’s official site which has more information.
From Creation to the death of Joseph, here are all 50 chapters of the Book of Genesis, revealingly illustrated as never before.
Envisioning the first book of the bible like no one before him, R. Crumb, the legendary illustrator, reveals here the story of Genesis in a profoundly honest and deeply moving way. Originally thinking that we would do a take off of Adam and Eve, Crumb became so fascinated by the Bible’s language, “a text so great and so strange that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions,” that he decided instead to do a literal interpretation using the text word for word in a version primarily assembled from the translations of Robert Alter and the King James bible.
Now, readers of every persuasion—Crumb fans, comic book lovers, and believers—can gain astonishing new insights from these harrowing, tragic, and even juicy stories. Crumb’s Book of Genesis reintroduces us to the bountiful tree lined garden of Adam and Eve, the massive ark of Noah with beasts of every kind, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by brimstone and fire that rained from the heavens, and the Egypt of the Pharaoh, where Joseph’s embalmed body is carried in a coffin, in a scene as elegiac as any in Genesis. Using clues from the text and peeling away the theological and scholarly interpretation that have often obscured the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Crumb fleshes out a parade of Biblical originals: from the serpent in Eden, the humanoid reptile appearing like an alien out of a science fiction movie, to Jacob, a “kind’ve depressed guy who doesn’t strike you as physically courageous,” and his bother, Esau, “a rough and kick ass guy,” to Abraham’s wife Sarah, more fetching than most woman at 90, to God himself, “a standard Charlton Heston-like figure with long white hair and a flowing beard.”
As Crumb writes in his introduction, “the stories of these people, the Hebrews, were something more than just stories. They were the foundation, the source, in writing of religious and political power, handed down by God himself.” Crumb’s Book of Genesis, the culmination of 5 years of painstaking work, is a tapestry of masterly detail and storytelling which celebrates the astonishing diversity of the one of our greatest artistic geniuses.
A surprisingly reverential and straight adaptation from one of comics’ most influential humorists. Here’s a preview of chapter 19.
Pretty big week for comics. Lots of good stuff to check out.