Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I guess I'll put up with discussions of which Green Lantern is toughest if it means more of this (though that causality is kind of questionable)

You guys know about Leif Peng's Today's Inspiration, right? Blog devoted to illustration art, mostly from the middle part of the 20th century? Eddie Campbell is a fan, and it's his linkage that made me aware of Peng's incredible public service. Sadly, I tend to get behind on reading it because I don't want to skim through it (I also tend to get behind on Campbell's blog and other intellectually dense blogs--it's something I want to read when I'm thinking clearly, not when I'm bleary-eyed and trying to eat my hemp flakes). A few illustrations stood out when I was catching up on recent posts (which is really saying something, considering how jaw-dropping most of the art featured there is), so I thought I'd bring them to the attention of people who read this stupid blog but have missed out on Peng's, for whatever reason.

First, there's this incredible illustration by Phil Hayes (Flicker set here):










That's just an absolutely stunning use of color. I keep staring at this illustration in awe.

I also really liked this illustration by Robert G. Schneeberg (Flicker set):




















Sort of in the same general neighborhood as Richard Sala, what with the unnatural perspective and murder and whatnot. Or maybe I'm nuts. Regardless, a fine illustration.

There's a lot more to be found at Today's Inspiration, so do go spend some time there. It's certainly time better spent than reading some webcomic about vampire nuns on the moon or whatever. I'm not sure if I agree with Eddie Campbell's assertion a figment of my imagination posing as Eddie Campbell that we should consider illustration art to be a type of comics (or graphic novel or whatever you want to call the medium). In fact, I'm not sure I completely understand his argument. Like, is this something that applies to any illustration? Is NC Wyeth a cartoonist? I know that, back when I first discovered Wyeth (in an issue of National Geographic), his paintings immediately appealed to the same part of my brain which governed my comics reading. Of course, these kinds of questions are precisely the ones which seem to make Mr. Campbell bristle, so I'll stick to his larger point: these are works of art which readers of comics should appreciate, and we should be thankful to Mr. Peng for bringing them to our attention.

(Brief aside on Campbell's taxonomatophobia, just because I can't help myself: I think it's pretty self-evident that there's a time and place for extensive/intensive categorization, and that such preoccupations are not unique to comics culture (such as it is--maybe a taxonomically-oriented column would liven up the next issue of Comic Foundry). For most artistic pursuits, however, that kind of preoccupation is reserved for the academy, where experts debate categorization in order to create the most accurate possible history of a particular movement, medium, or whatever. It's also prevalent in the more serious types of criticism, partly because it helps establish a shorthand for talking about very complex subjects. Responsible critics/academics somewhat regret such categorization, because one always runs the risk of reifying the categories. This, in turn, might run contrary to the artists' intent, color audiences' interpretation of the work in question, etc. Of course, some academics/critics like to argue about this stuff for no good reason other than self-aggrandizement or semantophilia or something. Either way, it's mostly ivory tower bullshit for the majority of those who view/read/whatever the work in question (unless we're talking about something really obscure, in which case questions relevant to taxonomy might be the only reason people pay it any mind in the first place).

This, as you probably know, is not the case for comics, where ordinary fans have interminable, soul-destroying conversations arguments about which specific issues signal the start/end dates of the Silver Age, who exactly qualifies as a mutant, how to interpret adjectives when filing one's comics in alphabetical order, and so on. This isn't unique to comics--I think it's a general nerd culture phenomenon, the kind of thinking that leads people to argue that hours of Wikipedia research are part and parcel of consuming a video game/comic/whatever. I think this mentality probably originates in early days of fandom, back when sickly young men traded letters about science fiction stories. In fact, I kind of think this mentality is an inevitable product of nerd culture, in that this culture tends to fixate on cultural artifacts intended to be consumed, then disposed of and forgotten. Since regular people have historically viewed such art with contempt, nerdly obsession fosters a sense of group membership, or even superiority by virtue of consumption of the derided product. This, in turn, inspires an incredible degree of insularity within the subculture, rewarding further contemplation of the artifact over non-nerdish pursuits (LIKE DATING OR SHOWERING, HA HA HA). Which, of course, encourages exhaustive cataloging (which, at long last, necessitates exhaustive categorization).

Another thing: since these cultural artifacts were disposable and often produced for children, the original authors gave little thought to their internal logic. So it fell to the obsessed fan to weave some kind of internal consistency from a great tangle of hastily-produced junk. And since there were so many contradictory scraps of information, that led to (a) ever more convoluted tapestries of "continuity," (b) the notion of "canon," and (c) interminable, soul-destroying debates over how to interpret things intended for children and slow-witted adults. That is what I hate about comics fandom. What I like, for the record, are people who can look at an obscure piece of art and determine, with no hesitation, who inked it, what company produced it, etc. That's useful, non-solipsistic information. Nutty fanboys: I will like you better if you start concentrating more on actual art and story rather than the fictional characters who inhabit these comics. If you're reading this, you're too old to get into arguments about how long Batman can hold his breath, especially if this is part of a larger debate over which superhero can hold his or her breath the longest.)

Er, where was I? Oh yes: there's lots of good, free stuff on the internet, much of which compares very nicely to the comics you have to pay actual money for at your retail outlet of choice. I'm not talking about webcomics, really, but all the blogs where people are posting great comics which predate my existence by multiple decades: Mike Lynch, Karswell, Pappy, Scans Daily (I mean, not everything there is worth the effort to roll your eyeballs across the monitor, but sometimes someone posts something like this), Golden Age Comic Book Stories, Michael Sporn (lots of animation there also, but that's no reason to complain), Alan Holtz, the inconceivably great ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive (which also contains some incredible illustration and animation work)--this is a treasure trove of great comics. And that's just what I've assembled from my newsfeeder and various links in Journalista over the past few days. Ten years ago, I would not have believed that I would have the opportunity to purchase all these wonderful comics, let alone read them for absolutely free. The presence of these terrific sites sort of balances out the unfathomably positive reaction to those hideous Heroes TV Guide covers. People who like those TV Guide covers: click on some of the above links and decide once and for all if your taste is as bad as I fear, or if you just haven't been exposed to the good stuff yet.

14 comments:

Eddie Campbell said...

"I'm not sure if I agree with Eddie Campbell's assertion that we should consider illustration art to be a type of comics "

Oi, stop!!!
You've misquoted/misremembered.
I never said anything remotely like that.

perhaps you're thinking of the time I said that comics, whatever, it's all just illustrated stories.

that's the opposite of what you've quoted.

Eddie

Dick Hyacinth said...

I was a little reluctant to mention it, since I couldn't find the quote I thought I remembered. The closest I could find was what you said about Vernacular Drawings here, and I guess I extrapolated from there. Sorry to misrepresent you, though I have to say I'm tickled to see you leave a post on my humble blog. I'll correct the entry.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Oops, that link's not working. I mean this post:

http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/2006/12/arrival.html

Eddie Campbell said...

No worries.

In the old days of Punch magazine all cartoons were considered to be 'humorous illustrations.'
the idea that cartoons are a completely different animal from illustrations, let alone that comics are different from cartoons, is a fairly recent notion. I felt that if we take a mental step backwards we could clear away some of our wrong headedness. However, I now think it's too late. All the heads are wrong.

I also wrote about the 'authorial illustration' idea, in which illustrators create their own projects. The originators of this idea see the graphic novel as an example of it. I like this because it positions the graphic novel outside of comic book culture. The GN needs to do this if it is to survive as an independent idea. presently i think it is failing to do so.

these may seem to a casual observer like uneccessary abstractions, but remember the kind of stupidities in the mainstream press and the comic book press/blogosphere that i keep highlighting (see my sat 3 nov post). some kind of mental map of what is where and what is next door and what overlaps what else seems to be necessary.

Jamaal said...

Just when I start to feel exasperated with the medium, I get links to cool things. I can look at these rather than reading comic blogs for a couple of days. Good looking out.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Mr. Campbell: I have to admit, it took me a while to understand what you were getting at with the whole graphic novel thing. And I don't think it's because I'm dumb or you're especially oblique, so much as that it runs so contrary to popular discourse on the subject. But once I understood what you meant, I found your position to be very useful.

It seems to me that it's the tendency to unite "comics" (meaning commercial work intended to appeal to the widest possible audience) with "graphic novels" (meaning works with serious literary/artistic ambitions) which as at the heart of your complaint, and that seems to run contrary to most writing about comics. We want to have our cake and eat it too; we want a dynamic medium with massive popular appeal, but we also want those literary/artistic works to be taken seriously as literature and/or art. I think there's a basic presumption that the two can coexist peacefully, or even that there is some mutually advantageous symbiotic relationship between the two.

That's why your linguistic angle is more important than I first realized--by conflating the two terms, one thus conflates the two approaches. Maybe we (meaning bloggers and the like) haven't been sensitive enough to this issue because we don't make enough of an effort to try to see the industry through the eyes of someone trying to make serious (original definition) graphic novels. And then there's the conservative streak you mentioned, which seems to harbor some desire to purge "comics" of anything which doesn't seek to entertain above all else. Most worrying is that some (many?) casual readers of comics share this opinion, given the comments in that Onion AV Club post that Dirk Deppey linked to yesterday.

I've been trying to work up a post about this, but I can't quite seem to make it work. Maybe I'll try again later this week.

Eddie Campbell said...

"It seems to me that it's the tendency to unite "comics" (meaning commercial work intended to appeal to the widest possible audience) with "graphic novels" (meaning works with serious literary/artistic ambitions) which as at the heart of your complaint, "

Hmm...every time I see myself paraphrased I think no that's not what I said either.... (To break down what you've written there would be to pointlessly dig a hole and then climb into it, but that's not the way that I use those words, in fact i don't use thsoe words at all except when I'm quoting somebody else.)
the problem is that persons doing their thinking from within what I have called 'comic book culture' are not usually aware of where they're standing. Imagine for a minute ordinary people who read Dilbert on the way to work, or ladies who follow For better or Worse. Now, let's say they're outside of comic book culture. Let's say they pick up Shaun Tan's the Arrival and enjoy it. Let's say they would be mystified to learn that somebody somewhere is arguing about whether it is or isn't a graphic novel. Such arguments only happen within 'comic book culture'. This has got nothing to do with whether a work intends to be serious art or not. When Will Eisner coined (Let's ignore for a minute whether it had been coined already before that) the term 'graphic novel' he did so in order to sell his project to the regular book world, outside of comic book culture. He wanted the book to be recieved without all that baggage attached to it. To some extent this ploy succeeded, but comic book culture then claimed the term (Marvel's graphic novels, DC's graphic novels etc.) and has made it now mean more or less the same thing as 'comic books' . Except the argument is about the length, or format, of the work, and really that's irrelevant but has been made to be the whole argument. i.e. it's a long form comic book. that's now all that it means. A whole cluster of useful ideas has got lost in the shuffle. And furthermore we have so confused the mainstream media that they invariably get themselves in an ugly twist every time they set out to do a review. Now THEY argue about whether it's a graphic novel (see my nov 3 post), which used to only happen within comic book culture.

It's a public relations mess. And since I make my living on the line where these cultural areas meet, I feel obliged to constantly point out what a mess it is.

(To the guy going into the comic book store every wednesday to pick up his comic books, all of this is certainly meaningless.)

Dick Hyacinth said...

I have to admit, I didn't read all the "comic books as genre" debate on your blog from this summer, but I wish I would have before posting anything. Now I think I have a clearer picture of what you mean by mental map--comic books, manga, comic strips, illustrations, cartoons, and whatever category you want to assign to The Arrival--these are related (in that they're narratives using pictures), but not the same thing.

As to the linguistic history of the "graphic novel," it was at one time just a term to relieve oneself of the baggage associated with the American "comic book" (a redundancy, correct?). It was useful as a way to label the artist's intentions, but made no claims as to format or subject. Today, however, describing one's work as a "graphic novel" is no longer a viable way to distinguish one's intentions from those of the "comic book." I want to say that this ties into your objections to Douglas Wolk's book (ie, the "Biff! Pow! It's all comics!" mentality of some of the newspaper reviews), but I don't want to put words in your mouth again.

I hate to drag you into this because I figure you have better things to do. I probably have better things to do, too. I just don't want to incorrectly attribute any philosophy, description, or definition to you again.

Eddie Campbell said...

(I'm waiting for my scanner to move along...so i'm sitting at the computer anyway)

as a paraphrase what you say below is near enough. and yes to my Wolk objection. But remove 'just' in first sentence. it was more than 'just'. It was an ambitious gambit to make something grand using 'sequential art,' and to pitch it into the artistic mainstream. You can see that the notion of it being merely a format makes for a much meaner ambition. (but as I say, I believe it's too late to argue that point, and much has been lost along the way.) (and this is off subject from the original point about illustration. glad you picked up on leif peng's site. Check out his archives too. He's been doing a great job for quite some time)

"As to the linguistic history of the "graphic novel," it was at one time (just) a term to relieve oneself of the baggage associated with the American "comic book" (a redundancy, correct?). It was useful as a way to label the artist's intentions, but made no claims as to format or subject. Today, however, describing one's work as a "graphic novel" is no longer a viable way to distinguish one's intentions from those of the "comic book." I want to say that this ties into your objections to Douglas Wolk's book (ie, the "Biff! Pow! It's all comics!" mentality of some of the newspaper reviews), but I don't want to put words in your mouth again."

Dick Hyacinth said...

I think by "just," I meant that the term didn't have an ironclad meaning (ie, "novel" doesn't necessarily mean a work of particular length or a work of fiction). It's not the word that's important, but the idea. At least I think that's what I meant, but I'm not so sure anymore.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying your position; hopefully I won't do violence to your words again anytime soon. I really appreciate your stopping by.

leif said...

*whew* - that was quite a lively exchange! just discovered your post via my sitemeter and wanted to say thanks for the nice mention.

Cheers - L ;-)

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