Monday, March 31, 2008

Is This the Most Expensive Comic Book Ever?

Robert Crumb's Sex Obsessions
Taschen Books
258 pages

I saw this beautiful book at the Beguiling last week and can't stop thinking about it. Compiling 14 of Crumb's best sex-obsessed stories published between 1980 and 2006, hand-colored by Pete Poplaski, this book may not only be the most expensive, but also, quite simply, the best comic book ever. Crumb is our greatest living cartoonist, and this represents some of his greatest mature work.

It also made me wonder, is Taschen the best comic book publisher ever?

Full details here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Skim

words by Mariko Tamaki
drawings by Jillian Tamaki
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
143 pages

review by BK Munn

This gorgeous new graphic novel answers the question, what if 80s sitcom The Facts of Life was really a drama about Wiccan ceremonies, lesbian crushes, casual racism, and suicide?

Sixteen-year-old diarist Kimberley Keiko Cameron (aka Skim) is already having a hard time negotiating the preppy world of her Catholic all-girls school when she is plunged headfirst into adulthood. For Skim, "being sixteen is officially the worst thing I've ever been." Like every teenager, alternately bored, embarrassed, and confused, Skim tries several strategies to forge a unique identity for herself, with little success. Even the goth subculture Skim imagines as a refuge from the lameness of her middle class surroundings turns out to be one big letdown. In one of Skim's funniest sequences, the cult of adult Wiccans Skim and her best friend Lisa join turns out to be little more than an AA support group for hooking up burned-out ex-druggies.

The suicide of a cheerleader's boyfriend sets the plot of the book in motion and brings into focus the cracks behind the facade of highschool innocence, friendship, and Skim's own ironic distance from her own emerging womanhood and adult awareness. As her school becomes obsessed with death and suicide, Skim argues with and eventually drifts away from her best friend, moving towards new relationships and her first romance (with hippie English teacher Ms. Archer).

Skim is a delicious balancing act between words and pictures, with Skim's studiously deadpan narration contrasted and enlivened by Jillian Tamaki's fluid drawing style. Luxurious panels, alternately spartan and highly detailed, depending on the story's mood and dramatic necessity, take us step-by-step through every moment of Skim's experience. There are almost no false notes in this book, graphically or textually, a difficult performance in any work that strives to capture the nuances of teenage interiority and speech patterns.

One of the book's major themes is the series of disappointments with the adult world that adolescence is fraught with. Skim progresses through disillusionment after disillusionment, but is luckily girded with the twin weapons of sarcasm and a practiced ability to fade into the background. But these tools are almost not enough to guarantee her survival when she is forced to experience firsthand the heartache she has previously only been a sardonic observer to. In the course of the book, Skim is drawn inexorably into adulthood through a gamut of betrayals and epiphanies, all of which she faithfully chronicles for us.

The conceit of the book is that the visual aspect represents a drawn diary --the unconscious working in tandem to give a (literally) well-rounded picture of Skim's experience. Textually, this takes the form of crossed-out confessions, list-making, and subtle, funny observations expressed as Zen equations ("me=seriously screwed"; "my school=goldfish tank of stupid"). Graphically, the pictures often take the story beyond the diaristic, a perfect use of the comics form, showing what Skim can't bring herself to confess verbally through the use of body language and tiny facial expressions; skilled use of black and white, chiaroscuro effects, gray washes, and easy, virtuoso line-work. Certain key scenes are entirely wordless and Jillian Tamaki's visual storytelling skills are utilized to the maximum with almost surreal effect.

An early version of Skim was published by Kiss Machine in 2005 and writer Mariko Tamaki reworked the story as a play before the graphic novel version took its current shape. The minimalist prose, humour, and tight structure of the book seems to be a result of this process, filtered through the eye of Jillian Tamaki. The whole effect is a darkly funny, bittersweet coming of age story.


Skim Booklaunch
This Is Not A Reading Series
Wednesday, March 26th. 7:30-12pm
The Gladstone Hotel, Toronto
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki will be interviewed by Toronto writer Jessica Westhead, with Brad Mackay introducing.

Skim news at Jillian Tamaki's blog.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

International Shakespeare in the Comics Day

March 15 is International Shakespeare in the Comics Day!

Top 5 Shakespearean Comics:

1. The Mighty Thor by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Stan introduced a pseudo-Elizabethan language to this superhero series about Norse gods, lending the dialogue an epic, Shakespearian quality. As well, Kirby's creation of Volstagg, equal parts Falstaff and Porthos of the 3 Musketeers, introduced one of the more interesting secondary characters of the Marvel Universe.

2. Asterix and the The Great Divide

This retelling of Romeo and Juliet the first volume in the Asterix series to be written and drawn entirely by cartoonist Albert Uderzo after the death of his longtime partner Rene Goscinny and is a charming change of pace for Asterix and Obelix.

3. Oscar Zarate's Othello

Best know for his collaboration with Alan Moore on A Small Killing, this imaginative adaptation by the Argentinian Zarate is one of the best straight-up comic versions of the original play.

4. Julius Caesar by Wally Wood

The best comics adaptation of Julius Caesar is a parody of the 1954 Marlon Brando film version, illustrated by Wally Wood and written by Kurtzman and printed in MAD #17. MAD loves the bard, but this early piece is the best. Caesar got the full biographical treatment in Frontline Combat #8 (1952).

5. Batman, Dick Tracy and Spider-Man

Hardboiled Hamlets. All three of these characters are essentially revenge dramas (revenge melodramas?). All three are premised on the death of a father figure and the resulting metaphorical relentless, humourless, hunt for a killer. That's all I've got. I'm sure it's more complicated.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mystery Hoard: Walter Trier

Walter Trier (1890-1951)

Trier was born in Prague but moved to Munich in 1909. He contributed to the German humour and cartoon magazines of the day (especially Kladderadatsch and the left-wing Simplicissimus ) and was equally at home as a caustic satirist and cartoonist and an illustrator of children's stories. His opposition to the Nazi regime led him to flee Germany, finally settling in England (where he produced anti-German propaganda) before emigrating to Canada in the late-40s.

Trier contributed to publications in the UK (Lilliput), Canada and the USA (including many New Yorker covers). A huge talent.

Trier has several pieces (a large archive actually, including many of his sculptures and children's toys) in the permanent collection of the AGO.

You can see some of it here.

I found this old peanut butter jar, capped with a Trier illustration, at an antique shop around the corner from our store. It cost $3.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Canon II

As various bloggers are reporting, a new report says there were over 3,300 graphic novels published in the U.S. and Canada in 2007. That's quite a bit to keep on top of and illustrates quite handily the value of the various awards and critical lists that are now a major pillar of comics culture. Specifically, the job of actually figuring out what is worth reading (vs reading 9 comics a day or just giving up) and what will continue to be worth re-reading in the future, just keeps getting harder. Not to mention the threat of an avalanche of titles actually huurting sales, as Tom Spurgeon mentions in reference to recent events in France. Heck, the latest Comics Journal, featuring the "Best of 2006" articles, listed over 150 books and strips. Too many? Of course, few people ever ask the question, "Are there too many books?"

One of the traditional tools for separating the wheat from the chaff in book terms is the idea of a canon, which has been discussed alot lately. Since the issue seems likely to become a theme of the comics blogosphere, with new posts daily, herewith some more

Notes: On the Comics Canon

If one of the requisites for canonical status is immortality --specifically the sort of immortality that exists when the work of one artist is given new life though the work of another, down through the generations, then several early caricaturists like Cruikshank, Topffer, Tenniel, and many others qualify. These artists not only created great art; they created great art that continues to inspire the cartoonists of today. As was said of Wilhelm Busch, they have "stumbled into immortality."

18th and 19th Century

"The want of genuine imagination is always proved by caricature." --Wm. Hazlitt

"I have endured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer, my picture is my stage, my men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures are to exhibit a show�" --William Hogarth

A preliminary list would include the work of those artists examined by David Kunzle and the great old stuff in Seth's 40 Cartoon Books of Interest. Ideally, all comics readers would be miniature Wimbledon Greens, setting aside an hour every night to pore over an old comic book or ancient print by the likes of Daumier, with nothing but a magnifying glass and perfect silence for company.

20th Century

Ana Merino articulates a feminist critic's position on underground comics by women, relative to the canon: "What I am aiming for is the natural and unprejudiced recognition that will widen the thematical canon of comics and allow those written by women to enter more thoroughly, more easily, in greater quantities and to wider recognition and acceptance."

Ray Zone, in a review of the Masters show, sums up the treatment of comics in U.S. galleries and provides a rough guide to what makes a work of sequential art canonical: "reflexive self-awareness that one is producing lasting art with its own set of parameters."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mystery Hoard: 1940s Comics Used as Insulation

This is a fascinating article about a mystery hoard of old paper found in the walls of an building in Grand Bend, Ontario.

As the boards and nails are pulled from the walls, Bill and Bram Steele were amazed to find the treasures in what was once the Statton home, and Kay’s Do Drop In, main street, Grand Bend.

As the father and son renovate the building to expand BJs Diner, they could not believe how this building was insulted. Valentine cards to Marilyn Statton and stacks of London Free Press 1947-1948 kept the heat in to this small family home. The cards are as clean and pristine as they were 60 years ago. "To Marilyn Statton from Carol Gill" reads one card.

Bram was amazed as he went through the pages of the newspapers and comics the colour as vibrant as it was six decades ago. The first news paper he took out of the wall had a front page story entitled "Grand Bend buys fire truck unit." It was dated Feb 23, 1948.

I love these kinds of stories. Even more, I would love to have more details about these mysterious "comics" that were exposed. As a collector of paper ephemera and old comic strips and comic books, my curiosity is quite agitated. When we moved into our current house, we found some old paper in the crawlspace of the attic. The former owner had worked for the local cab company and there was taxi ephemera, timetables and worksheets, and, most disturbingly, a tiny crutch once used by a child. Not a such a great haul.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Canon Wars

The Scapegoats of Tomorrow

Pity we poor comics canon-builders. Given the raw materials of some Donald Duck comics, political cartoons, and the violent fantasies of misogynist morons, how are we to construct a critical edifice to withstand the schlongs and marrows of outrageous fan opinion and professorial snobbiness?

Over at the newsarama blog, Chris Mautner returns to the subject of canon formation and the American comics canon (or canons: Mautner sees three separate canons championed by fans of comic strips, superhero comics, and so-called literary comics). The whole thing seems to have started as a response to an article by Jennifer de Guzman about the lack of a comics canon or even critical writing on comics.

The discussion leads a few others to offer their own lists, none of which come close to the grandaddy of all such lists, the Comics Journal's top 100 English-Language Comics of the 20th Century list from 1999. Still a far cry from the 3000 canonical works that make up the Western literary canon that Harold Bloom talks about in his 1994 book, but a good start in terms of a list for talking about what is "good" in the books and strips of the last 108 years, and broader than something like the Masters of American Comics exhibit. The Journal list certainly began a discussion, as Douglas Wolk notes in his new book. In a related turn, John Holbo writes on Wolk's Reading Comics, arguing that, despite Wolk's assertions to the contrary, the book actually functions as part of a larger canon-forming movement among U.S. comics critics, or at least is responding to an already existing canon (but not really "smashing" a canon, as the book's dust-jacket and Wolk both insist).

Outside of the usual academic concerns with canon-building (and Mautner's latest post includes a few paragraphs from David Ball, professor at Dickinson College), and as much as I love lists, I wonder how useful these lists are, especially as currently formulated. Will any of these comics still be considered great 10, 20, 50 or 100 years from now? Does it do any good to look at these things out of context? Shouldn't we consider, at least, cartoon books of the 19th Century? In practical terms, wouldn't a decade-by-decade survey of great U.S. comics, or a list that confined itself to U.S. graphic novels be more edifying? Lumping together open-ended serials, gag-a-day strips, and consolidated narratives really muddies the waters and limits any kind of focus to the most basic formal similarities.

The nature of comics criticism and the general appreciation of comics worldwide has opened up considerably over the last decade, with groundbreaking anthologies like Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time, Todd Hignite's Comic Art, Bart Beatty's Unpopular Culture, and the explosion of translated manga really transforming the way many of us think about comics and comics greatness, but the real "job" of canon formation is really going on in the Academy, in dozens of undergrad introductory courses in "The Graphic Novel" and post-grad seminars in "Sequential Narrative."

While the Academy has canonised many members whose names half a century later are forgotten, or are remembered only to be called up with a smile or a shrug, it has persistently ignored those who have employed the pencil instead of the brush, or have used ink instead of misusing paint. But it is unnecessary to pursue the subject farther; that the names of Keene, Leech, and Tenniel are not on the roll of the Academy is surely far more to the discredit of the institution than of the artists themselves, who presumably, from the Academic point of view, are "no artists." As Mr. du Maurier has pointed out, Punch's artists will have their revenge: "If the illustrator confine himself to his own particular branch, he must not hope for any very high place in the hierarchy of art. The great prizes are not for him! No doubt it will be all the same a hundred years hence—but for this: if he has done his work well, he has faithfully represented the life of his time, he has perpetuated what he has seen with his own bodily eyes; and for that reason alone his unpretending little sketches may, perhaps, have more interest for those who come across them in another hundred years than many an ambitious historical or classical canvas that has cost its painter infinite labour, imagination, and research, and won for him in his own time the highest rewards in money, fame, and Academical distinction. For genius alone can keep such fancy-work as this alive, and the so-called genius of to-day may be the scapegoat of to-morrow." ---The History of Punch by MH Spielmann, 1895

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The List: Lists and the Listing Listers Who List Them: The 100 Best Reviewed Comics of 2007

Blogger Dick Hyacinth has finally posted his list of 100 comics and graphic novels from the myriad end-of-year "best of" lists, both online and in print --a huge variety of sources (Hyacinth lost track). A monumental undertaking, the list has quite a few great books on it. It also has many books that will be either obscure or entirely new to many readers, myself included. The two major features of the list are the lack of superhero comics and lack of manga, the subject matter of roughly 90% of all internet noise concerning comics and, I suppose, based on bestseller lists, the largest income generators.

I love lists like this even though, like bestseller lists, they are never going to be a scientific guide to quality. But I will settle for popular, especially since there are so few comics reviewers whose taste, comics knowledge, focus or worldview is developed and consistent enough to make reading them on a regular basis worthwhile. Beyond the occasional Tom Spurgeon review and the Comics Journal, my reading of reviews if fairly scattershot and inconsistent. I'll click on a link at the Comics Reporter or Journalista, but I'm more likely to read a review if I feel it's not likely I'll actually read the book (for instance, I might read a review of the new Iron Fist series written by Ed Brubaker or a review of a new manga series intended for teenage girls like Shugo Chara, #44 on the Canadian bestseller charts this week). On the other hand, once I've read something, I'm curious what other readers experience of the book was and will often hunt down a favourite reviewer's thoughts on the matter. But I'm more likely to seek out a long, considered piece of criticism more than the short bookchat-style review that is the stock-in-trade of most blogs and newspapers and one of Gore Vidal's famous betes noires. You know, Donald Phelps vs Publishers Weekly.

Anyway, a very interesting list. My own list would have maybe put Alias the Cat over Scott Pilgrim, and Shortcomings over Exit Wounds (and most of the classic comic strip collections like Popeye and Walt and Skeezix over everything else), and I would have had more anthologies, but why quibble with a machine-made list?