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Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists

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Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists
Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists

Almost eight years ago now, Yale University Press released a thick, glossy book by Todd Hignite called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. It was a collection of interviews with indie cartoonists, among them Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. The book not only reproduced, in its almost 500 full-color illustrations, examples of the work of the artists being interviewed, but also reproduced the comics they read and loved and studied and borrowed from while developing their own way of drawing and of telling stories.

Last month, the University of Chicago Press released a book by Hillary L. Chute called Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists. While it doesn’t have as many lush, dramatic reproductions of comics new and old as Hignite’s book has, it’s nevertheless a satisfying survey of the artists who have turned and are still actively turning the graphic novel into a new kind of literature—and in so doing are now being stamped with the approval of academia and its elite university presses.

Chute’s book contains 11 interviews and spans the range of the comic medium’s creativity, from the artists whose work is fully fictional (Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine), to work that’s closer to memoir and essay (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Spiegelman), to new forms of political journalism (Joe Sacco and Phoebe Gloeckner), to theory and aesthetics (Scott McCloud). Chute also interviews two women who were at the helm of the most important underground comics magazines of the 1980s: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who co-edited Weirdo with her husband Robert Crumb, and Françoise Mouly, who co-edited Raw with her husband Art Spiegelman, and who today is the art director of The New Yorker.

Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital

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Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital
Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital

Several weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague asking me to explain why it is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier had broken the April box-office record for biggest opening weekend: “What’s the urgent need to give a history of contemporary geopolitics from the standpoint of superheroes?” While I didn’t have an immediate, comprehensive answer, Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital seeks to answer this question (and many more) via an eclectic collection of 13 essays, each one examining various, emergent features of the superhero narrative in the digital age—roughly the last decade and a half.

Editors James Gilmore and Matthias Stork write in their introduction that the superhero genre is “a site of converging media and, as such, offers multiple points of intermedial exchange.” This point is key, since much of the collection is aimed around Henry Jenkins’s notion of “convergence culture” and Jonathan Gray’s definition of “paratexts.” Essentially, the collection of essays seeks to demonstrate how “the form of today’s superhero genre relies on digital technologies,” but Superhero Synergies is more than a rehashing of well-trodden terrain regarding indexicality or a celebration of comic-book culture. Instead, the essays form a rigorous and often provocative collective that, among many of its achievements, argues for these transmedia forms (primarily cinema) to be taken seriously as a reflective expression of contemporary discourses on reformed digital aesthetics and neoliberal politics.

Comics Column #6 Fourteen Capsule Reviews

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Comics Column #6: Fourteen Capsule Reviews
Comics Column #6: Fourteen Capsule Reviews

After this columns’s previous installment, I thought the format needed a break. My wife and I have a pretty wide-reaching library of comics (and comics-related works) in other media here at the house, and so I thought I’d take a minute to scoop up a big random pile of stuff here and do some old-fashioned reviewing, the way Mama used to do it. Let’s see what I could find:

Kill Shakespeare #1, McCreary/Del Col/Belanger, IDW Publishing

Tom Stoppard this isn’t.

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is recruited by Richard III and the three witches of Macbeth, who want him to kill an evil (?) sorceror in exchange for the resurrection of his late father. The sorceror’s name is not a surprise if you have read the book’s title, or indeed, any metafiction ever written.

This comic is off to a bad start just on the basis of its back cover. The high concept pitch may have gotten the book published, but putting “…a dark saga that is Fables meets League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with a dash of Northlanders” in your cover copy is both arrogant and dangerous in the expectations it sets—and in this case does not meet. The first two books in that list offer intriguing twists on the original characters in classic stories, whereas this issue does not promise new insights so much as the sliding around of puzzle pieces.

More interesting is the claim to the third title: I haven’t read Brian Wood’s Northlanders, but one of the viking epic’s draws has been the portrayal of brutal action by a number of strong artists (though their rotation has apparently left some inconsistent story arcs). That seems to be where their claim is leading here, as the first issue is mostly set during the off-scene pirate attack in Hamlet. Unfortunately, the art is workmanlike at best, with no dynamism to the action scene and a limited range of facial expressions. Moreover, the pirate scene adds nothing to the story but “action,” and reads more like the two writers had always wanted to see the moment play out.

More petty is the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern repeat each other’s names over and over during their few pages. Were they concerned we would not be able to tell them apart? Seems pointless, as they of course die before the issue is half over. A poor beginning to a series with an idea that could be used in interesting ways under a stronger hand.

Comics Column #5B The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)

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Comics Column #5B: The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)
Comics Column #5B: The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)

I want to talk about an interesting comic book movie today, but first I guess I should talk about Iron Man 2.

“Doing too little with too much.”

In the third installment of this column, I said this about Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man film:

Comics Column Special More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

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Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers
Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

I was working on the next comics column, inspired by some of the welcome suggestions and comments to my last entry, when a special date snuck up on me. So do pardon my self-indulgence.

When I began this essay, it was Friday, May 8th, 2009, and Transformers celebrated 25 years of near-continuous presence in various media, from animated cartoons to live action films to, quite obviously, action figures for children and obsessed collectors. It was, actually, the comic book that was released first, with the intent to stir up interest in the new toyline. And with a sequel to Michael Bay’s spastic blockbuster film coming in a couple of weeks and the newest speciously-reasoned philosophy book recently released (surely the sign that you’ve hit the zeitgeist, right?), it’s a time of reflection for armchair pop culture theorists; what has led the property to endure—even, arguably, to flourish of late—when so many have fallen by the wayside? While critical reception to the film largely confirms the popular view that the property’s long-running fiction is little more than a facile toy commercial, is there anything buried there to hold onto?

Noted webcartoonist and longtime Transformers fan David Willis (Shortpacked!, Joyce and Walky!), in noting the anniversary date, proposed, “...perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers’ longevity. It’s free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable…Star Trek had to sludge through forty years, at the end subsisting on nothing more than fumes, before it was allowed to reinvent itself top-to-bottom for a fresher audience.” And indeed, Transformers’ numerous iterations over the years found it trendsetting as often as it drew on nostalgia (the Emmy award-winning cartoon Beast Wars, for instance, was one of the earlier uses of fully-CG animation for a wide audience, debuting only about six months after Toy Story).

Comics Column #5 Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen

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Comics Column #5: Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen
Comics Column #5: Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen

Well, here’s hoping three months makes the heart grow fonder, eh?

With regards to my absence from this website, I can only offer my heartfelt apologies and a list of excuses, only some of which would be of interest to the readership which had been so supportive of this column in the past: impending nuptials and subsequent change of residence, a possible comic project of my own since put on brief hiatus (artists wanted—apply below!), the effects of the economic climate on my day job, and repeated consultations on my upcoming oral surgery (really, don’t ask). It’s been something of a “restructuring period” around the homestead of late and I can’t yet imagine how the next few months will affect my planned return to regular column-writing. My lovely wife-to-be is a teacher with a particular eye to comics in the classroom, and our discussions have meant this site has rarely been far from my mind. I believe it was the great Albert Swearengen who said that announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. That said, with an event of some notice occurring this week amongst the “comics to film” crowd, I’d be remiss in not peeking out from my self-imposed gopher hole and taking a glance at the landscape.

Quick notes of thanks that I’d planned to make before I vanished from God’s green Internet last: To Journalista’s Dirk Deppey and to Savage Critic Abhay Khosala, who both had kind words for this column, as well as to Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton (also very kind), and to each of the readers who made the comments threads such an enjoyable follow-up to these over-labored writings. Though to those who were troubled by my tendency to meander, this might not be the best entry to rejoin my scattered thought processes…

And of course thank you to Keith Uhlich for his never-ending fount of patience and goodwill. One of these days I promise to get around to earning it, I swear.

Comics Column #4 Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

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Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)
Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

XXIII. “There is only the past.”

Jordan Mechner, creator of the long-lived Prince of Persia video game franchise, released a graphic novel inspired by his games earlier this year through First Second books. A publisher swiftly becoming known for high-quality literary works, First Second usually releases imported works from beloved European cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, as well as prestige projects from already-known talents like Eddie Campbell or Jessica Abel—the idea of a video game adaptation coming from their publishing house, even a particularly well-marketed book like Prince of Persia (celebrating a major new game release), seemed something of an anomaly. However, unlike most adaptations of a video game into any other particular media—cinema having notably had trouble with the product so far—this book turned out to be surprisingly well thought-out and often gentle in its storytelling. While hardcore gamers who came to the book out of curiosity may have been disappointed at the minimal level of swashbuckling—or, really, any of the superficial elements inherent to the “platform game” video game mechanics—the book is a rewarding, if disposable, bit of fairy tale confection.

Comics Column #3 A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

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Comics Column #3: A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)
Comics Column #3: A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

“This is what you get when you emotionally invest yourself in a company-owned product that has to keep on coming out regardless of who’s writing and drawing it. This is what you get when your lizard compulsion to jerk off over superheroes overrides your forebrain. This is what happens when saying ’I just want X-Men to be good again’ is mistaken for some kind of intelligent comment on the state of the medium. Fuck all of you.”—Warren Ellis

XII. “I want the whole picture!”

It’s almost funny now, to think: it wasn’t that long ago that movie aficionados had to explain to people the difference between full-screen and widescreen. When DVDs first started shipping to stores and people had to make a conscious choice, many did not know which option offered a more complete visual experience and the director’s original vision. To this day, full-screen versions of many films are offered separately because some people are more comfortable with an image that fills their television.

For a period in the late 90’s, comics had what they called a “widescreen” movement. If film uses the term “comic book movie” to refer to overblown superhero blockbusters that rely upon recognition more than they do consistent narrative or emotional depth, there’s some small level of irony to the idea that comics use the term “widescreen” to refer to books that are all bombastic, over-the-top action to the detriment of everything else; cool explosion visuals in place of the moralism of Golden Age DC Comics or the tortured family stories of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. If all comic books are going to be Chris Claremont’s “X-Men” books, then all films will be Michael Bay’s action movies.

This is probably not the basis for a very mature dialog.

Comics Column #2 Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)

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Comics Column #2: Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)
Comics Column #2: Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)

”’Comics’ are a social object written in a visual language that combines with text. If novels or magazines are written in English, why should ’comics’ be a language, instead of be written in a language?”—Neil Cohn

VI. “...axis of connection…”

Not that long ago, I wrote briefly for this site on the subject of recurring visual metaphors in Neon Genesis Evangelion. I wrote, then, that—

“It is incredibly difficult to create a solid visual that then serves as a metaphor within the work itself, as the visual has to be potent in its initial incarnation without disrupting the flow of the story, and then must recur in a natural way.”

—and in film, this difficulty is in part because of the difference in “window” that I discussed in my first installment. We don’t, by nature, refer to a specific visual composition as a metaphor that recurs because the objects in the frame are so often moving. This is not to say that it isn’t done—directors like Kubrick and Lynch have been able to capture visuals that work in a single frame, empowered by meaning even apart from context, and oftentimes those images inform on the work as a whole—but it’s an underused technique.

Comics Column #1 Windows on the Other Art

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Comics Column #1: Windows on the Other Art
Comics Column #1: Windows on the Other Art

The old saw about how many words an image speaks—do you add or multiply when there’s a few of them in a row?

Keith has been gracious enough to invite me to crash the party every two weeks and talk about the comic medium. I don’t know, I guess maybe it’s come up here once or twice lately. In the last few years, the relationship between movies and comics—graphic novels, sequential art, choose your buzzwords and tap gloves—has gotten pretty complicated, at least in comparison to what it had been. And while I’ve been for many years a vocal advocate for the argument that comics have won the “fight” that many fans seem to think they’re having with the rest of polite society, there’s still some critical discussion regarding what is and is not possible with comics, and its nature as an occasional (or, as it seems these days, very frequent) source material for other media.

I study comics, and I have for over ten years. This is not the same as being a comic fan, although I most certainly am that as well—I’ve been reading comics since before I could walk; I study comics, or at least I try to, the way that many people here at The House Next Door study film (something that, obviously, I also do, though I’m still more of an exuberant freshman in that particular curriculum). This is an ongoing column about comics of all kinds, how they work, their relationship to their audiences, and other subjects. In keeping with the primary nature of this site, oftentimes it will be about comics and their relationship to film, though the link will wax and wane as the subject dictates. But I hope I’ll keep things interesting.