A few years back, the Comics Journal published a list of the top 100 English-language comics of the 20th century. That list produced a lot of controversy because a number of the works included didn’t exactly conform to what the average person thought of as comics. That meant material like editorial cartoons, sketchbooks, caricatures, woodcut books, and single-panel magazine cartoons. Attempts at analyzing and narrowing comics’ scope like in Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS often have the side effect of unnecessarily restricting what the art form can be. For example, McCloud insists that comics must have more than one panel because by his definition, comics show the passage of time. Comics writer RC Harvey insists that its core lies in the the combination of words and images; if it doesn’t have both, it’s not comics. One of my favorite cartoonists, Kurt Wolfgang, wrote a send-up of this notion in a story called “What The Fuck Is A Mini-Comic?” Playing a McCloud-type character, he tries to narrow down exactly what makes up a mini, only to be shouted down by his audience, poking holes in his theory. He winds up with this definition: “You know ‘em when you see ‘em!”
I think this point can be made about comics in general. One can tell the difference between a comic of some kind, versus say, an illustrated book or a painting that mixes words and pictures. One can just understand it intuitively, even when it’s not clearly a narrative (like Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures). There are certainly works that blur the line between comics and painting, or comics and illustration, or comics and books. But why not make the tent broad? That more open approach allows for idiosyncratic works to be considered as comics, which only enriches our understanding of the art. Furthermore, the tradition of comics being a part of other media is a long one, and it’s intriguing to see how this tradition has evolved.
I’ve recently received three completely different publications. One is an aggressively eclectic magazine called MSTRMND which both contains comics and is clearly influenced by a comics aesthetic. Another is a free magazine by a new publisher called COMICS COMICS, which celebrates and critiques comics both past and present. The last is an issue of BIG ORBIT COMICS, focusing on the author’s career as an animator. The strips and jokes therein are unapologetically specific to his trade, which gives them an odd charm for an outsider. The aesthetics particular to each of the three publications is not necessarily mine, but they’re so earnest and relentless in presenting their own point of view that they’re compelling reads (in differing degrees) in their own ways.
Let’s look at the first two issues of mstrmnd edited by Kevin McLeod and published out of New York. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this magazine is about design that pushes the envelope. While the content is meaty and thought-provoking, it’s clear that the magazine’s look is its most important aspect. My favorite piece was a subway map that cleverly combined subway lines from several major world cities into one map that was both beautiful to look at and made a weird kind of sense. What I find particularly compelling about MSTRMND is that it’s as concerned with dissecting the past as it is in talking about the future. You might find an article about a proposed Museum of American Slavery on the national mall in Washington, DC after a detailed exegesis of the Matrix trilogy; or an excerpt from an old HM Stanley book deconstructed by a modern writer after a report on waste tornadoes of the Pacific. The magazine is concerned with politics, ecology, role playing, philosophy and beauty.
While it’s unpredictable in terms of content, certain patterns do emerge. The second issue is less linear than the first, with more of a visual than textual focus. That new/old tension is still in evidence, with a photo essay on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and another photo essay about a Halloween party in Detroit. Really, the primary common thread between the two issues is a continuing comic strip called “Wooden Mirror”. Written by the editor, the story is a weird mix of genre styles, as a young Caucasian boy, aggressive Asian young woman, and older African-American man are on a sort of quest to find and use a wooden mirror. There’s no exposition, just characters dropped in the middle of a violent situation. Fake ads that begin the episodes (including one for Hanso swords) add to the sense that the stories are a recapitulation and remix of action genres in general. What’s disappointing about the stories is that the visuals are pedestrian and conservative, compared to both the ideas in the story and the magazine in general. In MSTRMND, the visuals are bold and imaginative, which makes the comic look almost quaint, like the visuals from the Stanley stories he reprints. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate approach, but the look of the comics doesn’t fit in with the rest of the publication. Regardless, the fact that you can’t pin the publication down makes it especially compelling to re-read, and I find something new that catches my eye each time.
It’ll be interesting to see how this serial evolves as the magazine continues to mutate in other directions. “Conservative” is certainly something you can’t accuse COMICS COMICS of being. It’s spearheaded by Picturebox’s publisher Dan Nadel, also known as the force behind the art/comics publication the Ganzfeld. Picturebox has published a book called BJ AND DA DOGS by Paper Rad, as well as ART OUT OF TIME: UNKNOWN VISIONARY CARTOONISTS. Nadel is interested in work on the margins of comics, often of the outsider artist variety. Paper Rad (consisting of Jessica Ciocci and the infinitely strange work of Ben Jones) is a perfect example of this aesthetic. Their work leaves few on the fence: some consider it brilliant, hilarious and totally original, while others are baffled at its appeal. While I tend to be in the latter camp, I have respect for the total commitment to their own individual vision and aesthetic that Paper Rad evinces. COMICS COMICS is a beautiful display of Nadel’s other interest: discussing these sort of comics. Paper Rad starts things off with an essay written in the style of a George W Bush speech that winds up declaring Scott McCloud and Matt Madden as enemies of true comics experimentation. Legendary cartoonist Mark Newgarden kicks in a few comics of his own, and there are profiles of Ciocci, Matthew Thurber and Wally Wood.
This fascination with the margins of not just today’s comics but of the whole of comics’ history is what makes this such a stimulating read. The Wood essay discusses the specifics of his aesthetic (which Nadel dubs the Frozen Moments School of Comics) and compares it to his contemporary, Ogden Whitney. While both are critiqued, often harshly, the evaluation is fair and Nadel’s observations are incisive and lead to new revelations about these artists. The rest of this issue is taken up with reviews. The most interesting is by the co-editor of COMICS COMICS, Timothy Hodler. He reviews THE DICK AYERS STORY, a 3-volume comics autobiography of an artist active since the Golden Age. I read these when they came out last year and was fascinated by them. Ayers was known for being able to draw just about anything but was never a writer, and it showed in this attempt to write about himself. But he holds little back in his narrative (even if it doesn’t make sense at times or repeats stories), and Hodler picks up on what made it such a unique work. Moreover, he correctly notes that few people reviewed or even noticed it. The fact that COMICS COMICS exists to fill this gap is welcome indeed.
The other reviews range from new comics to Golden Age reprints. It’s mostly concerned with books the authors find personally compelling (while taking occasional shots at others, like PERSEPOLIS’ Marjane Satrapi). While I didn’t necessarily agree with much of what was written in this publication, there’s nothing else like it out there. It’s a wonderful projection of the force of will of its participants and their sheer love of comics. That can only be a good thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
One thing that interests me are comics artists with other creative dayjobs. In particular, there seems to be a big wave at the moment of animators who also draw comics. Mike Fisher is one such artist. While the general concerns in his animation revolve around science-fiction tropes, BIG ORBIT COMICS #8 is about animation itself. Through his 3-D Pete character, he talks about trying to find time to do his own independent animation, dealing with criticism, struggling with computer manuals, making deadlines for animation festivals, using the newest tricks and techniques (sometimes at the expense of his narratives) in animation, showing his cartoons in front of near-empty rooms, etc. It reminds me a bit of Justin Green’s SIGN GAME strips: it’s aimed at a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience and has enough wit and verve to make it amusing for a general audience. While I must admit that I don’t have much interest in his actual animation, this little humorous behind-the-scenes look at his life and career (filtered carefully through a fictional character) was a pleasant read. Like in the other works discussed above, the sheer enthusiasm Fisher has for his craft burst through the pages and forces attention from the reader.
As a writer and critic who usually selects the material I choose to write about, it was a welcome and interesting challenge to immerse myself in the different points of view from each of these works. In particular, it was exciting to see works that differed not just in subject matter but in form from what I usually discuss. Independent comics cover a lot of territory, and that territory just continues to expand.