“Young Jeffrey Dahmer” by Derf (really)

  • Turns out our artist Alejandro Bruzzese is a skilled multitasker. Here’s a short clip of him at work.
  • NPR has a list of 5 comics for summer (because, you know, Chris Ware is seasonal).
  • This is relevant to my research: the top five comics about serial killers. Apparently five is the largest number of comics people can handle on one list.
  • In celebration of pride week and America finally getting its head on straight (heh) and repealing DOMA, here’s a short piece about LGBT characters in comics. The author’s assertion that it’s “hard” to find non-webcomics featuring LGBT characters is total nonsense, though.
  • The Comics Journal has a lovely tribute to the late Kim Thompson.

Jonathan W. Gray, Peter Kuper, & Molly Crabapple at the CUNY Graduate Center


(l-r) Gray, Kuper, and Crabapple

Last Friday I went to hear comics scholar Jonathan W. Gray discuss “political movements and graphic narrative” with artists Peter Kuper and Molly Crabapple.

Kuper, the current artist for Mad Magazine’s strip Spy vs Spy, started off his section by laying out an impressive history in political comics. He, along with a few other artists, founded the magazine World War 3 Illustrated during Reagan’s presidency as an outlet for political comics in a time, he says, when even work by Art Spiegelman wouldn’t be published if it featured controversial subject matter. The magazine begat gallery exhibits, a retrospective at the late Exit Art,and other, less typical projects for Kuper like condom packaging design.

It became immediately clear that Kuper didn’t necessarily choose to approach political subject matter as much as it was an impulse he couldn’t help but express. He explained that it was “in [his] bloodstream” to think about the atomic bomb. “What happens […] in other parts of the world,” he continued, “It creeps up here […] the burning. The circumstances do not allow [for] upbeat work.” This urgency shifted after 9/11: it was “frustrating to feel impotent,” Kuper explained. He began to take solace in playing with his daughter, enjoying escaping into her “world.” Finally, the desire to escape became tangible enough that Kuper moved with his daughter and wife to Oaxaca, Mexico. The move initially gave Kuper a chance to sketch and “break free” from his preoccupation with what he saw as an increasingly isolating and enraging political climate.[1]

Oaxaca wasn’t quiet for long. The 2006 teachers strike began as it had every year in Oaxaca for a quarter century before, but what was usually a one or two week affair turned into seven months of violent confrontations resulting in multiple deaths. State troops came in and suddenly Kuper was forced back into violent surroundings.

The dialogue that emerged out of the Oaxaca incident struck Kuper. There would be spray painted and stenciled protest slogans spread on walls of town buildings that became layered upon one another and would eventually get covered by art and commentary. Kuper showed us a slide of the graffiti after it was painted over by the Oaxacan government: it was a quick, incomplete effort where patches of white paint would be smeared on the graffiti. Though the messages themselves were gone, there were vivid reminders of erasure that suggested there was no way to quiet the dissenters. These were visual conversations in real time, a soapbox for anyone who wanted to stand upon it.

This idea of immediacy in public revolutionary art came up again in Molly Crabapple’s presentation. Crabapple, who has done work for DC comics, is known for her creation of life-drawing sessions called Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, and has recently become renowned for her sketches of and posters for Occupy Wall Street. “I would draw […] and hours later it would be on the streets. […] Images have power, [they] get past defenses [and] overcome compassion fatigue.” Much as was the case with Kuper and the Oaxacan protests, the air of discontent made its way over to Crabapple rather than the other way around. OWS happened on the streets “outside [her] window,” literally too close to home to ignore. “As an artist and a person,” she said, “I couldn’t look away.”

Molly Crabapple’s presentation extended the conversation on public art, discussing her work on posters for and sketches of Occupy Wall Street.  Much like in Kuper’s case, her interaction with the protest world was largely incidental. Crabapple worked on posters of burlesque performers (“I drew my former friends as gods and my audience as pigs”), but OWS happened on the streets “outside [her] window,” too close to home to ignore. “As an artist and as a person,” she said, “I couldn’t look away.” Initially her drawings of the protestors, she explained, were meant to counter popular and media depictions of occupiers as a homogenous mass of unwashed drug users and criminals on welfare.

The experience led Crabapple to realize the importance of observation: “In 2011, the world exploded […] the best way to engage as a human being [is exploring] why [it] fell apart.” She journeyed to Europe to see “the roots of Occupy Wall Street” firsthand, this exploration of the world “exploding.” Her and Lauren Penny’s e-book Discordia (meant to be a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”) chronicles the trip. The book’s summary explains their intentions:

“In an impassioned climate where ‘objective’ journalism is impossible, Penny and Crabapple offer a snapshot of a nation in the grip of a very modern crisis where young and old see little reason to go on, the left is scattered and the far right is assuming greater power and influence.”

Departing from the idea of objective journalism was par for the course for Crabapple, who couldn’t help but maintain the fanciful style that she had developed when working on Burlesque posters pre-OWS.[2] “I wanted to make activist art that looked like a fairytale,” she explained, art that would catch the viewers’ eye and draw them in with aesthetics before immediate pedagogy. She mentioned Soviet propaganda art and explained that, though it was visually attractive, the viewer would “immediately know” if she/he was in the target demographic for the work. She wanted to reach people who would otherwise ignore protest material, to play off of traditional American visual tropes while altering them enough for people to become interested in the image.

Jonathan W. Gray, who teaches what seems like an endless list of fascinating subjects at CUNY, departed from discussions of immediacy and focused instead on Egyptian comics artist (and apparently also pharmacist) Magdy El Shafee’s book “Metro.” The book takes place in Mubarak’s Egypt and, because of the use of the comics medium, “makes dissent legible,” showing the “day-to-day frustrations of life” in Egypt. This display, unlike the graffiti in Oaxaca or Crabapple’s OWS posters, was directed towards those outside the conflict. El Shafee, whose book was banned and who was arrested in 2008[3], explained that Egyptians “are numb […] they just say ‘that’s the way things are here.'” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from many people who have to live in constant fear. It’s hard for outsiders to understand this feeling (I certainly don’t)[4] and so the part of El Shafee’s work that is immediate begins once it’s in the reader’s hands. The urgency of understanding moves quickly, and comics are one of the few mediums that can help readers match its pace.

Comics have long been vessels for political agendas–Kuper contributed a foreword to Fredrik Stromberg’s impressive history of Comic Art Propaganda which covers a wide range of political uses of comics by both individuals and governments. In his introduction, Kuper writes: “Stromberg elucidates that this art form is not only a perfect vehicle for delivering potent messages, but also has the capacity to intelligently address any subject cartoonists are willing to explore.” Will certainly has something to do with it, but, to quote Kuper from the talk, “for whatever reason, you get put in a situation.” Neither he nor Crabapple chose the confrontations that ended up in front of them but, as was the case with El Shafee, they did recognize the importance of documenting them.

[1] Kuper had already tried to physically dissociate his work from politics while addressing the relevant subject matter: 2004’s Sticks and Stones is a pantomime comic in which he created an origin story for a Golem creature meant to stand in for George Bush (he got tired of drawing Bush, Kuper explained).

[2] She lamented early on in her presentation that “[artists] are supposed to sit in studios and copy our favorite works until we die.”

[3] Notably only having to pay a fine in response to the conviction.

[4] An audience member in the Q&A portion brought up a story about post-war Vietnam. He explained that there’s graphic art in the war museums but none in public. Murals on schools, he said, were of princesses and popular cartoon characters. When asked about it, a citizen explained: “We won, and this is what we want our children to become.”

Gray responded with a statement that could only come from the privilege of living in a country that’s been untouched by war for over a century: “We need [reminding] representations[…] those kind of documents […] there’s a place for this stuff.” Perhaps the place is in museums; Crabapple mentioned Goya’s work and Picasso’s “Guernica” and said that it’s been “proven over and over again” that political art, when it’s “good,” sticks around. But what are the limitations of this somewhere like Vietnam, where there’s nothing but reminders of war? Could protest art exist publicly when people are still trying to put their lives together?

Chris Ware & Zadie Smith at the New York Public Library


wareI recently went with illustrator Kat Mills to hear Chris Ware and Zadie Smith in conversation[1] at the New York Public Library. There were some really salient points that came up during the conversation (particularly in the early parts): Ware discussed the four-dimensionality of comics–that is, the way that his work communicates and connects to the reader.

This amorphous immersion in the world of the comic allowed by the medium and how well Ware takes it on. Smith had a writer’s way of looking at it, explaining that she saw comics as a medium with two “different” elements: writing and rendering. She called one “secondary” (without specifying which out of the two were primary), which made me realize that writers will always see written elements in comics first the way that drum players instinctively pick out the drum line in a song.[2] She led me to explore the long-unanswered questions I’ve had about the integration of written and visual elements in comics, or at least made me rethink the primacy of each element for different people.[3]

Is it as easy as separating each element of comics into a different “dimension”? Without one of these elements, does the comic become flattened, no longer as engrossing as it was?

A lot of Smith and Ware’s comments were worth thinking about to that extent, and so here are some of the moments that I found most interesting:

Zadie Smith, with a photo put on screen of her at 13, on how she began to write: “When you look like this at 13 you have a lot of alone time. […] I was a proud loser[…] but there were worse losers [out there] because they didn’t understand me.” All hail the good losers.

Chris Ware mentioned that he preferred “Peanuts” strips to superhero comics as a child, but still drew “weird, almost homoerotic drawings of men in tights” back then. He really only started drawing stories at 18.

Ware said that it seemed to him “that art[…] was over,” and that he felt “unequipped to deal with contemporary art.” Let’s play ignore the irony (Ware had an exhibit in the Whitney, which, by all intents and purposes, makes him a contemporary artist) and focus instead on the modernist/supremacist idea of art being “over.” I don’t remember who exactly made the scale of representation in art—I think it was El Lissitzky, but I could be wrong—but part of the whole “death of art” obsession in the early 20th century had to do with the flatness of the canvas and playing around with extending the two-dimensional canvas space into a three-dimensional one (Robert Rauschenberg played around with this a lot on his flatbed paintings—1965’s Bed, for instance. The comments on dimensionality of comics mentioned above are worth considering with this in mind; is the density and specificity of the graphic novel genre a means of expanding the “dimension” of the work? What about the literal expansion into the three-dimensional space necessitated by Ware’s book Building Stories and the 3D model he released [see footnote 4])?

Smith and Ware agree that there’s “something crushing in art history” since “the armory show.” I believe that crushing feeling is called modernism.

Smith discussed reading and copying out stories of others to train (as did Hunter S. Thompson with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and, I’m sure, scores of other writers). She mentioned that her students (she currently teaches at NYU) are “very concerned about being original,” a desire that Smith sees as detrimental to focusing on the craft of the work. She later said that adults need to stop being preoccupied with talent in order to do work, to move from “facility” to actually using those skills. She suggests that writers “stop worrying about macro issues” like theme and what the story is “about,” and just work on the details. Where was this woman when I was an undergraduate??

Ware discovered Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine when looking for porn in the back of a comic book store.

Both Smith and Ware admitted that they write without much planning. Ware showed us a page of outlines for a particular spread, but also explained that comics is “an awkward” medium to work in when it comes to planning and editing.

Ware mentioned that “illustrator” is a dirty word in art school (insert Kat Mills nodding here). I guess they get the shaft the way that comics does as a medium.

There was a short discussion about the rate of reading required by Smith and Ware’s work (see my post about Nemo). Ware saw Smith’s recent prose (presumably her book NW) as being “fragmentary” and causing the reader to slow down. “It bloomed in my mind,” Ware said. “Well,” Smith responded, “It’s your fault.” Ware explained that Smith has the ability to cut out the fat in her work while still making the passage of time feel real (and not rushed or stagnant).

Ware: “Can you write at the pace you think?”
Smith: “Sometimes.”
Ware: (admiringly) “Wow.”

That’s all for today, folks but, as always, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Recommended reading via Chris Ware and Zadie Smith:

Work by comics creator Seth.[4]

Ware mentioned being inspired by Öyvind Fahlström, who made something akin to high art comics. Or at least played around with the iconography/form of comics. Also, Ware’s interest in three-dimensionality seems to have a lot to do with the playful sculptures of Joseph Cornell.

Here,” a short comic by Richard McGuire, has clearly had a ton of influence on Ware’s work.

[1] More like a biographical exploration of where Ware and Smith came from and tracing those origins to their work. For two hours. With slideshows. It was sort of like Smith and Ware were my great aunt and uncle and, after the seder, insisted on showing me what they were like when they were growing up.

[2] Okay, probably not always.

[3] What about you guys? Does anyone see one element before the other or see them simultaneously?

[4] Okay, I can’t help but mention similarities between a work of Seth’s and one of Ware’s. Ware recently released a large conglomeration (collection? It’s hard to explain this one) of comics written about imagined inhabitants of the building next door to his. The release of the piece, called Building Stories, was accompanied by a limited edition papercraft DIY model of the building. There’s relatively little mention of this model, as far as I can tell, relative to the attention the book has been getting, but it’s a fascinating element that I just can’t get over.  Publisher Drawn & Quarterly describes the model in true self-deprecating Chris Ware fashion (so much so that I can only think that he wrote the blurb himself): “presented as an absolutely unnecessary addendum to the already-unmanageable ‘Building Stories’ graphic novel, [the model is an] outrageously expensive signed limited edition print [that] will find few interested parties or adherents to its demanding, labor-intensive brand of rainy day leisure […] Sure to one day be a collector’s item when flammable tinder is at a premium, be prepared to start your post-apocalyptic campfire now with this 13 sheet collection of dry technical drawings, paper thin walls and cramped psychological spaces.”

I nervously brought up the model at the “stand-in-front-of-everyone-at-the-mic-and-talk-about-comics-while-your-voice-shakes” Q&A thing and Ware discussed it with essentially the same pseudo-disdain (or real disdain? Who knows) as the D&Q copy does. I could spend forever trying to unwrap the messily packaged box that is Ware’s brain–the incidence of self-deprecation in highly intelligent artists, the inability to process fame that results in more self-deprecation–but that’s really the pot calling the kettle neurotic.

To me, at least, the object is crucial to understanding Building Stories­–maybe not owning the model (I had to do the whole “honey here’s a present I got for myself I mean you I mean hahaha no really I want it let it go” thing to legitimize spending $80 on a paper model of a brownstone) as much as knowing of its existence. The New York Times, in its write-up of Building Stories, mentions the physicality of the object, the fact that the comic itself (which is in multiple pieces of different sizes that can be read in any order) cannot, by its nature, be read digitally. In a sense, then, can the setting also not be experienced without the physicality of seeing it? What difference does it make that even the setting needs to be peeled out of its comfortable exile onto paper and manipulated and folded until it becomes something you can touch and rearrange?

It seems to me to be very much about craftsmanship—the order you read Building Stories’ stories in lets you build the story, and you aren’t let off so easily that you will be able to escape having to build the building as well.[4a] Even though Ware wants to see the object as simply an accessory to the story (which is reasonable when it comes to an expensive limited edition object that you don’t want to guilt readers for not having purchased), the mere choice to create it says so much about the expectation Building Stories sets up for the reader to fulfill.

Where was I? Oh, right, similarities between this and Seth. Seth—as I just found out—created a set of models for his fictional city “Dominion.” Read this essay on Graphixia—it’s awesome and gets at a bunch of points that I just don’t have the space to address here.

[4a] Building building building okay I’m done now.